An Ember in the Ashes
by Sabaa Tahir (April 2015)
Recommended for fans of:
* Fantasy worlds that are dark but not graphic
* Female friendship in difficult circumstances
* Casual Roman history mixed into a fantasy world
* Complex relationships to read as friends OR romance
When Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for the rebels’ promise to rescue her brother, she will become their spy, as a slave at Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, she meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier, and secretly, its most unwilling. Their destinies are intertwined. In a brutal world inspired by ancient Rome, their choices will change the fate of the Empire.
My result: Recommended
A Roman-inspired world
An Ember in the Ashes is a YA fantasy inspired by the Roman empire. As a Greek/Roman history nerd, I went into this book with a mix of dread and hyperactive glee. The Roman influences are obvious and not as deep as I would have liked, and I felt disappointed. At first. Then, I let go of my hunger for Roman history, and just let this be a fantasy story.
The characters swept me away. After a slow start, the intricate demands of friendship, obligation, and survival pull Laia and Elias in all directions. The characters keep the focus, while the world is left more as an impression than a concrete setting. Soon, my brain started to fill in whatever background details it needed, and I settled in for the ride.
An Ember in the Ashes also brings in mythological creatures from the lands conquered or colonized by the Martial Empire. Thus we get jinn and ifrits, from Islamic mythologies, instead of rehashed Greek creatures that sometimes pop up in Roman stories. The world building would be shallow for an original fantasy novel, but the historical inspiration allowed me to pull in enough details to make it feel complete.
As should be expected in a novel inspired by Ancient Rome, An Ember in the Ashes does contain slavery and brutality. The threat of rape is a constant, and one scene contains an assault that avoids rape only at the last moment. If that is a trigger for you, avoid this book. But the threat is not realized, and there are no graphic descriptions to endure. Likewise, there is violence, both as torture and in combat.
Laia and Elias are at the center of a complex web of relationships. Many characters play an important role in their stories, and each is well developed. Their enemies are layered and interesting, and their allies even more so.
For Laia, there’s Keenan, who serves as her contact to the rebels. There’s Izzi, the kitchen girl, who risks her life for the sake of Laia’s friendship. And there’s Elias, the son of her tormentor, who shows her that not all Martials are evil.
For Elias, there’s Helene, his best friend and the only female warrior at the Academy. There are several fellow soldiers, trapped in the same system but without the vision to see another way. And there’s Laia, a slave who has yet to be broken. Elias can’t watch her suffer and do nothing.
Some readers treat those ally relationships as love triangles (squares?). To me, they felt like strong friendships. Sometimes circumstance reminds them that there could be more, and there’s a moment of confused awareness. But there doesn’t need to be a romance to be willing to put yourself at risk for someone else. It doesn’t have to be love to share a moment of attraction.
An Ember in the Ashes features a complex network of developing relationships and conflicting loyalties. I enjoyed watching both viewpoint characters weigh difficult decisions. No matter the choice, someone they care about is endangered by their actions. There is a moral weight to every decision, and consequences are painful.
In such a brutal world, it is a risk to care about someone, a risk to feel. That’s what makes An Ember in the Ashes well worth reading.
If you like An Ember in the Ashes
You might also enjoy:
- Red Rising – Roman inspired science fiction, with an interplanetary empire even Caesar would have envied. Read my review.
- Alif the Unseen – Urban fantasy in a Middle East setting. Alif is a completely different genre, but a good read if you’re looking for more jinn and non-European inspired fantasies. Read my review.
- And if you can’t get enough of Roman-inspired fantasy, make sure to check out my Greek & Roman Mythology Book List.