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.