An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Razorbill; 2015. 464 pages. Ebook.
An Ember in the Ashes was an extremely delightful surprise to read. While I had only been hearing great things about it, I was still a bit unsure for some reason - the summary just didn't quite grab me. Fortunately, it turned out be a major hit.
This book is told in alternating perspectives: The first character we meet is Laia, a young Scholar girl living in fear of the Empire and whose brother has been kidnapped and arrested for treason. Her only goal throughout the book is to do anything and everything that she can to free him, even if it means getting killed. The second perspective is told by Elias, one of the top soldiers at the Empire's military school, and who is destined for greater things. With this, we have the basic setup of the plot, and the rest I will leave out for fear of giving away too much or giving away spoilers.
Laia is not your typical female character. She's strong, yes, and that is made apparent throughout the book, but what sets her apart is that she's also not strong. When her brother is being kidnapped for treason before her eyes she becomes frozen in fear, knowing that she should help, but also realizing that she feels too cowardly to do so. Now, I'm not saying she's weak, but it's interesting that an author has created a character that actually doesn't act out and do something stupid in an attempt at false bravery that ends up getting them and the character they are trying to save into even more trouble. Instead, she simple lets the character run away for her own safety. Laia is not a born and trained fighter; she is simply a girl trying to survive. Thus, when she becomes a spy for the Resistance, she has absolutely no idea what to do how to spy. This is where her character development kicks in: she starts out as somewhat innocent, meek, not overly bold of confident, but slowly transforms into a much more risk-taking and bold person. It is extremely fascinating to watch Laia as she begins to realize who she can and can't trust, how to maneuver in her new surroundings, and how she handles each unique situation that she is confronted with.
Next, we have Elias. Elias, unlike Laia, is a born fighter. He has been trained to show no emotion or remorse, but to be strong and stoic. The Martials are a brutal lot, (with somewhat psychopathic tendencies, I'd like to add) and Elias is one of the few (if not only) that realizes he doesn't want to become a part of the Mask lifestyle or live a life torturing and hurting innocent people. He does not want to live under the command of anyone - not even his mother, The Commandant. He's sympathetic, and we see many streaks of kindness in him as the story progresses. While he is brave, strong, and confident at the start of the book, these features continuously grow as he learns more and more about his fate and responsibilities.
Laia and Elias were both equally fascinating to read from their perspective. Their lives couldn't have been more different, yet they are also strangely similar. While they start out completely unaware of the other's existence, their stories slowly unfold in a way that causes them to end up in the same place as the other. A connection forms - slowly - between the two as their fates unravel into one another.
I feel it is also important to mention Helena, Elias' friend since childhood; the two have grown up learning to fight and become strong members of the Empire together. Their bond is introduced as purely platonic, but of course we know that there is always more to the story. Helena is much more headstrong than Elias, and also extremely devoted to the Empire; she is willing to do anything for the Empire. It is where her loyalty lies. This, of course, creates conflict and complications between her and Elias, and she becomes a huge test of Elias' strength, skill, and loyalty.
All of the antagonistic character in this book were wonderfully written - and by wonderfully written, I mean completely and utterly repulsive. The Commandant truly is the perfect villain. She is seriously evil and I am not exaggerating in the slightest. What I truly loved about Tahir's portrayal of The Commandant was that she did give her a bit of backstory that helps us understand a little bit more about her. But it still doesn't make us like her. If anything, it makes us realize how evil and conniving she truly is as a mother and person. There is also Markus, a fellow student of Elias' who is similarly evil in nature and out to make Elias' life hell. There's always one of those, right?
There are also a few minor characters who are, in my opinion, more representative of what most of the other Martial students are like: loyal to the death, but only because they have to be. These people aren't inherently evil or violent, but they have been raised in that environment, so it is all they know. They have been brainwashed to ridicule those who are weak or attempt to escape. They have deep loyalty to the Empire and to their friends, and are willing to do anything they must to maintain that, as well as continue on with their brutal ways, which would include raping and acting out in violent manners toward innocent Scholars.
Let's not sugarcoat it: this is a pretty intense books. There's extreme violence, torture, threat of rape multiple times throughout the book, and extremely psychopathic villain. This book constantly kept me on my toes! The book moved at a rather fast pace, but it worked perfectly with the novel itself. When a book has such a brutal landscape as this one, it's almost necessary and crucial to keep the story moving, otherwise it simple becomes too bleak and depressing to read. There is a legitimate fear conveyed to the reader when Laia is sneaking around under The Commandant's watch that really blew me away; it's been a while since I've experienced such a dangerously terrifying villain in a book, where you are one hundred percent positive that they will have no problem mutilating or killing the protagonist.
Overall, this book will be getting five stars from me. I had a really difficult time deciding between four and five, but then I realized that I actually really enjoyed reading this book, and it got bumped to five. This is a major page-turner, and I highly, highly recommend it!
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