An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Ember in the AshesInformation

Goodreads: An Ember in the Ashes
Series: An Ember in the Ashes #1
Source: Library
Published: January 1, 2015

Official Summary

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.


An Ember in the Ashes takes readers to a darkly imagined fantasy world, where the Scholar people are oppressed beneath the rule of the Martials, and the Martials themselves must give way to the cruel whims of the Augurs.  No one is safe.  No one can be trusted.  In this world, two teenagers decide they have had enough; they are determined to take control of their own destinies, no matter the danger.

An Ember in the Ashes is somewhat unique in that, for this first installment of the series at least, neither protagonist has any grand schemes about changing their kingdom.  Both just want some peace for themselves; this is a story about people trying to flee a corrupt country to become refugees in a better one, not one about people with a vision.  Even the Resistance, ostensibly working to take down the government, inspires little hope or admiration.

Somehow, neither Laia nor Elias come across as selfish because of this.  Laia is inspired by a deep devotion to her brother.  Elias just wants out of a role in the Martial class that condemns him to be a highly trained killer.  The two have little in common beyond their desire to leave, and perhaps a somewhat irrational belief there is good in just about everyone, which makes their potential romance border on the unconvincing.  Each seems better suited for the other point on their (separate) love triangles.

The other characters tend to be similarly portrayed with a single dominating personality trait.  Despite how much page time many of them get, some still fall flat.  I would have particularly liked to see more backstory for the cruel ones.  In contemporary literature, it isn’t enough to imply someone is evil incarnate and leave it like that; readers expect villains to have become evil somehow.  If villains appear to have little motivation beyond irrational hatred and meanness, it makes less them interesting.

I would also have liked to see more in the way of world-building.  On one hand, Tahir does include a lot of details—and many readers have actually praised what they see as the very rich world-building.  Personally, I felt things were missing.  Blackcliff ostensibly has thousands of students and we essentially only meet four.  Similarly, we meet exactly two servants, in a place that should have dozens.  Mythical creatures are introduced only to disappear, and the history of all of the cultures in the Empire are a bit hazy.  I’m giving An Ember in the Ashes a pass because it’s part of a series and it’s possible a lot of this information will be revealed as the story progress.  If this were a standalone, though, I would feel as though half the book were missing.

I enjoyed An Ember in the Ashes.  It is imaginative, at times sweeping in scope.  I do think, however, it was a little over-hyped.  I never really connected with most of the characters, and I can’t figure out what anyone’s endgame is supposed to be.  If crazy things happen in a book for no apparent reason, it makes it harder to buy into the plot.

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