BOOK REVIEW: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes is Tahir’s debut novel in YA Fantasy. Since its publication in April 2015, it’s received so much praise that it became a NYT Bestseller and was optioned for film. And because of its success, Tahir fans have demanded a second installment. Lucky for us, her publisher agreed.

Seriously though, this was a fantastic debut that truly lived up to the hype. Throughout the read, I felt the story nod toward other bestselling YA novels like The Hunger Games and Shadow and Bone, but the heart of Tahir’s story and characters was completely unique to her.

But onto the review…

NON-SPOILERY REVIEW:

An Ember in the Ashes follows the winding stories of two characters: Laia, a slave bent on saving her brother, and Elias, a solider who desperately wants freedom from the empire. There’s friendship, love, betrayal, action, intrigue, and of course we can’t forget brutality. I’m pretty sure this book has something for everyone to enjoy. Probably why it was optioned for film.

Tahir manages to sculpt this expansive, complex world with a rich history that is routed in both blood and mythology. Because she wrote in a dual first-person POV, we get every angle of the story: the slaves, the scholars (conquered people), the Empire, and the Empire’s underlings. We even get a taste of a much bigger conflict, which due to spoilers, I’m not going to put here.

The one thing that I absolutely loved about this book was the fact that every character had a backstory, motivation, and character arc. You see the painstaking, attention-to-detail, efforts of the author from page to page that has you invested in every character from top to bottom. And even though it is a fairly large cast, every single character is important. Tahir does a fantastic job at tying in each character thread that truly makes for a phenomenal read.

My only complaint was that sometimes the writing wasn’t consistent. There were moments that were absolutely breathtaking in gorgeous imagery. Then there were moments where the emotional impact was softened because the writing wasn’t pushed hard enough. Whether it was a ‘tell’ or a ‘cliché’, there were times where I wished Tahir had just pushed a little further to really make my heart break.

Granted, this is a VERY SMALL complaint in the grand scheme of my enjoyment of this novel. If it weren’t for the fact that everything else was so beautiful and impressive, I may not have worried too much about it. But you know how it goes, once you prove you’re capable of something, people expect that same level of excellence ALL THE TIME.

Overall, I loved this book and am anxiously awaiting the sequel. I’m excited to see where this series, and its author, go from here.

NOW STOP HERE TO AVOID SPOILERS!

STAHP!

DON’T DO IT!

SPOILERY FANGIRLING:

Can we just take a second to admire the incredible world Tahir built in An Ember in the Ashes? Seriously, from the rich history of the Martials and the Scholars to the culture(s) and mythology, the world building was top notch and probably some of the best I’ve seen in a debut fantasy. The cultural struggles and strains go far beneath surface-level, and I think that’s what makes this book so special and so incredibly impressive.

I’m not sure which bit of world building was my favorite, so I’m going to cheat and say that it was the way Tahir unpackaged the world. Each page brought something knew and complicated to world. We start out with just a simple conflict: Scholars vs. Martials. Then we get Resistance and its different tensions. And Tahir pushes the world further still with the Augurs, their long game, and the Nightbringer and his history.

With the world building alone, there was no way this could be a stand alone, and I’m so glad I didn’t read this book prior to the news that the publisher had picked up the sequel. I would have cried. A lot. That ending, the mystery of what the Nightbringer has planned, the romance(s), the still-unknown long game of the Augurs. I NEED MORE! MORE!!!!

Moving on, THE CHARACTERS! I know I said this in the above section, but I really am impressed by the fact that Tahir gave every character a backstory and motivation, not just with Elias and Laia but all the secondary characters as well. We even see a little humanity in Marcus after he killed his twin. And despite the absolute CRAZY the Commandant’s got going on, we even get a glimpse into her motivations. But in the words of Sherlock Holmes, I suspect there’s a larger game afoot, specifically with her tattoo and her connection to the Nightbringer.

I did sympathize more with Elias than I did with Laia, especially in the beginning. The first third of the book was a lot of character development and story set-up, which I had a little trouble trudging through. But the moment the trials started and Laia started working at the Commandant’s house, the pace TOOK OFF! The moment the Augurs got involved, I couldn’t put the book down.

Moving onto the writing because I mentioned it above. Overall, I found the prose beautiful and lyrical. Tahir manages to capture the very essence of humanity and lay the souls of her characters bare for the reader. But there were a couple moments where I wanted more from the writing. Specifically, the scene where Helene (who I LOVE because she reminds me of Liraz from the Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy) vows her loyalty to Marcus. This is a huge, heartbreaking moment for Elias, and I just needed more. I wanted to cry, to feel the heartbreak and the abandonment, but I didn’t. The moment came and went so quickly.

The only reason I’m even able to say the above is because Tahir brought us torturous scenes that were beautiful in their brutality. The scene where the Commandant carves that ‘K’ into Laia, for example, was incredibly intense and painful.

I’m so excited for the sequel, A Torch Against The Night, to come out (slated for August 2016). This debut was sure to be the start of a phenomenal and impressive career for Sabaa Tahir.

What about you? What were your thoughts? Leave a comment below so we can discuss!

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