An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. ★★1/2
Trigger warning for rape
I feel like An Ember in the Ashes is the result of grimdark being popular among adult fantasy right now. And, hey, why not merge grimdark with YA dystopia, and all the typical YA romance tropes that implies? If you’re thinking this sounds like a bad combination, you’re right.
An Ember in the Ashes is a YA secondary world fantasy set in the harsh Martial Empire. Laia is one of the Scholar people who’ve been subjected by the empire. When her grandparents are killed and her brother captured, she goes to the resistance for help. They agree to break her brother out if she does something for them – infiltrate the empire’s military academy as a slave. Meanwhile, Elias is a solider at that academy. He’s only a few days from graduation, but he’s planning on deserting, not being able to stomach the brutality the academy instills. Then the Augers declare that it’s time for the Trials – a series of tests designed to chose a new emperor from among the academy’s graduating class…
Going in, I knew that the world building was supposed to be inspired by the Roman Empire. Honestly, besides the character names and the use of the word “legionary” I would not have guessed that this book was based on Rome. (Aside – it’s based on Greco-Roman culture and everyone’s heterosexual?) It feels like there was little thought put into the building of culture or society behind the vague ideas of “brutal,” “military,” and “empire.” Take the school – would elites really be sending their children to someplace they weren’t likely to survive? And what the heck was going on with the gender dynamics? An Ember in the Ashes was clearly going for a super patriarchal society, but it hand waved away things like the Commander of the school being a woman and a woman being allowed to compete to become emperor. Combined with the whole competitions being initiated because the emperor had no “male” heirs, this makes completely no sense. It feels like Tahir wanted these badass warrior women characters but couldn’t be bothered to build a society that allowed it so just came up with flimsy excuses like “they allow one woman every generation” instead.
The world building doesn’t work to that level where it comes alive and feels real. A large part of it relies on making things as brutal as possible, and a large part of that relies on the ham-fisted use of “rape as wallpaper.” Seriously, this book has a problem with rape. There’s references to or threats of sexual assault constantly, and Laia’s once almost raped so that Elias can save her. There’s also the way the book keeps saying that Laia’s especially vulnerable to rape because she’s beautiful. So the book’s basically saying sexual assault is all about women looking attractive and not about power dynamics.
Character wise, I didn’t get really attached to anyone except maybe Helen, the token girl student allowed into the academy. Elias just doesn’t do anything for me, and Laia… I appreciate how she wasn’t a copy and paste “Strong Female Character,” but she honestly didn’t seem that intelligent. She really should have figured out something fishy was going on with the resistance long before she did.
Like many YA books, there’s a sizable amount of page time spent on how attractive the various characters are. Laia’s so gorgeous that men are turning to stare at her where ever she goes. She’s completely unaware of this, of course, which only makes Elias find her more attractive. Besides thinking about how great the other looks, I don’t think Laia and Elias have much of a relationship. They didn’t spend that much time together, and I have trouble believing that it goes beyond lust. Each of them also has a secondary love interest, which feels pointless and annoying. They’re both narrators, so you know they’ll end up together. Besides, Laia spent even less time with her other guy than she did with Elias.
Plotting wise, An Ember in the Ashes relies heavily on prophecy. I really hate it when books do this. It makes our protagonists into pawns on some ultimate chess board by the augers and takes away any sense of agency on their part. Does anything Laia or Elias do really matter, or would it all turn out alright because of the prophetic machinations of destiny?
An Ember in the Ashes is clearly the start to a series, with the ending left wide open for sequels. An Ember in the Ashes could have been regular old trashy YA, but the bungled treatment of rape tends to take the fluff factor out of it. Still, I’ll admit, for five seconds after finishing, I did actually consider reading the sequel. Then I came back to my senses and thought better of it.