An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir YA fantasy book reviewsAn Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir YA fantasy book reviewsAn Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

The hype surrounding An Ember in the Ashes (2015) around its release was impressive, to say the least. Classed as Epic Fantasy, the book quickly became a bestseller on multiple lists and rights have been sold across thirty countries. Film rights were sold in a seven-figure deal (seven!) well before the book’s publication. A sequel was bought almost immediately thereafter. With these kinds of stats, is a book ever going to be able to live up to itself?

Laia is a slave under the Martial Empire. She comes from a group known as the scholars — a class of oppressed people who are enslaved by the Martials. Elias is a Martial, the group that makes up the brutal ruling class of the Empire. He is about to graduate as one of its elite soldiers, referred to as ‘Masks’ due to the metallic mask that will eventually infuse to his skin. The story kicks off when Laia’s brother is arrested for being a ‘rebel’ — part of the faction working against the Empire. Her grandparents are killed, her brother taken to prison, and Laia only just manages to escape with her life.

Across town, Elias is about to graduate as a Mask, one of the formidable henchman of the Empire. But unbeknownst to the Commandment (leader of said group of formidable henchmen and, fyi, his mother), Elias wants nothing to do with the Empire. He hates the way they treat the slave class and wishes to be rid of its shackles. He plans to defect the day after graduation. But there’s a catch. Instead of graduating, it’s just been announced that the young Masks will have to take part in the ‘Trials,’ a set of gruelling tasks that will see one crowned the new emperor of the Martial Empire.

Meanwhile, Laia’s managed to find herself in the midst of the rebel headquarters (it really was that easy) and has now made a deal to work in the psychotic Commandment’s office as a slave-maid, with the agreement that the rebels will help break her brother out of prison. She’s suddenly found herself in the very same martial academy that Elias is in — under the employment of his very mother, in fact. Perhaps it’s becoming easy to see where this plot is going.

Quite why An Ember in the Ashes is being classed as Epic Fantasy is beyond me. It seems that publishers are trying to find increasingly wily ways of dressing up dystopias. The ‘Trials,’ the oppressed heroine, the different classes of citizen — all these tropes are painfully familiar. There should have been transparency about the fact that this is undoubtedly a direct successor of The Hunger Games, Divergent and the many (many) other books that came in their wake.

Quibbles with genre aside, it was the tropes themselves that were an issue. It became immediately clear where the plot was headed and the roles the characters were going to play in it. Laia felt shoehorned into a brave saviour role — which was strange, seeing as Sabaa Tahir took pains to characterise her as weak and frightened. Elias, another saviour figure, was constantly distracted by his appreciation of women. In the midst of a political revolution, he finds himself continually sidetracked by beautiful women. It seemed grossly at odds with his resolve to change the Empire for the better.

Despite the melodramatic plot, An Ember in the Ashes was actually very well written. Perhaps it has fallen victim to its own hype, but readers looking for original Epic Fantasy, compelling characters, and convincing world-building will not find it here.

Published in 2015. Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free. Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear. It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do. But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy. There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.


  • Ray McKenzie

    RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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