Monday, June 8, 2015

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Title: An Ember In The Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Release Date: April 28, 2015
Rating: 4/5

The Gist: 
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.

Sabaa Tahir presents a bleak and disturbing world.  With the conquered Scholars on one side and the terrifying Masks on the other.  Masks are trained as children in the most horrific of circumstances to best their peers and follow their superior's orders without question.  The Scholars watch as they raid, arrest and murder with impunity.  Thinking only of rescuing her brother from prison, Laia agrees to enter the Mask's world as a spy for the resistance, a position that proves more and more dangerous as she becomes more and more desperate.  Elias also dreams of escape.  He has never wanted to be a mask and has elaborate plans to slip away. This is, of course, until fate steps in in the form of a mysterious Augur who seems to know the secrets inside his heart and head.  As he tries to meet their demands while still maintaining his soul, he faces challenges that he never imagined and is continuously pulled towards Laia and away from the world he swore to uphold. 

An Ember in the Ashes is not for the faint of heart.  It is a terrifying world where the characters must make heartbreaking decisions.  Often, these choices mean suffering and death for those that they care about.  The masks are taught to fight and sometimes kill one another from the moment they begin their training.  Upon graduation, they are put in charge of a society where they will be forced to torture and kill Scholars without question.  There is a great deal of talk about prostitution and rape.  There are instances of attempted rape and points where the threat of rape is used as a plot device to spur on male characters, which I could have done without. 
The plot is exciting, with danger around every turn.  Laia is spying on the most terrifying woman in the empire, who always seems one step ahead of her enemies and takes a particular sort of pleasure in torturing and mutilating those that displease her.  Elias is facing a set of trials that threaten not only his life, but also his soul.  The odds are stacked against him as the trials seem designed to prey on his weaknesses more than anyone else's.  Despite this, there aren't really that many surprises in the plot.  It was just too easy to guess which characters had ulterior motivations and how the story would play out.  The only characters I was left questioning were the Augurs.  It still isn't clear what side they fall on and how much they manipulated the outcome for their own aims.
While I liked the characters, I didn't particularly LOVE the characters.  The only one I wanted to spend more time with was Helene and I really wish the narration had also been told from her point of view (fingers crossed for the next book!)  I was not really invested in any facet of the love triangle (love square?) and, as with the rest of the plot, it was pretty easy to predict which way things would go.
We know that there will be a sequel to this book, but it isn't yet clear if it will be a trilogy.  There are a lot of questions left to answer (who exactly is Cook?  What game are the Augurs playing?  Who betrayed Laia's parents?  Who is Elias' father?) which means lots of material for expansion in this series, whether it be through more books or novellas (I would love to see novellas telling Cook's story and the young life of the Commandant.)

Bottom Line:While I am definitely not on the "best book of the year" bandwagon.  I am also intrigued enough to say that I will read the sequel as soon as it comes out. 

Teaching/Parental Notes:

16 and up
Sex: Kissing
Violence:  LOTS, fighting with weapons, violent deaths
Inappropriate Language: Bastard, Whore, Bitch
Substance Use/Abuse: None

Great For Readers Who Loved:

Unanswered Questions:  WARNING: SPOILERS!

- How are masks chosen, is everyone stolen away like Elias or do some kids grow up knowing they will become masks?

- Why make the Masks slaughter each other in the trial? Clearly the empire has invested a lot into the YEARS of training and just when they have graduated and can start paying back in service, they are slaughtered to.... teach a lesson?


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