an ember in the ashes – sabaa tahir | review

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Series: An Ember in the Ashes #1
Published April 28th 2015 by Razorbill
Age Range: Young Adult
Genre: Fantasy, Romance
Representation: POC


Rating: 4 out of 5.


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.


trigger and content warnings:
  • rape, slavery, genocide, fascism, racism, sexism, sadism, child abuse and labour, manipulation, emotional abuse, general abuse, torture, disfigurement, branding, whippings, animal cruelty, loss of loved ones, mass murder, violence and gore
  • taken from mary s. r.’s goodreads

After finishing An Ember in the Ashes, all I could think was: I need a break. The first thing that caught my attention was the beautiful, enchanting, and gripping writing. Sabaa Tahir has a way with words that made me want to continue reading.

An Ember in the Ashes is simply a book I couldn’t put down. The hierarchical systems within the empire and the academy itself are established right from the beginning. The empire has so much history to unravel and discover. The author has expertly interwoven each individual character into politics and the trials.

The field of battle is my temple. The sword point is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release.

History lesson: The Martials conquered the Scholars centuries ago under the hands of Taius who was crowned emperor. They proceeded to oppress and enslave the Scholars. Consistently living in fear, the Resistance sprung up with the idea of overthrowing the Martial empire. Blackcliff Military Academy existed once to prepare for the next emperor but turned into an army training ground. Augurs are powerful holy persons who are revered as seers.

Before entering into this world, I only knew about the names Elias and Laia and wondered in what ways would their lives intersect. Inevitably, Elias’s life is tied to death and destruction. Unable to turn a blind eye towards the cruelty faced by the enslaved Scholars and the harsh corporal punishments towards fellow trainees, Elias vowed to leave.

“You are an ember in the ashes, Elias Veterius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.”

As for Laia, infiltrating Blackcliff as a slave is her only way to save her brother who was captured by the Martials. In exchange for insider information, the Resistance will aid in extracting Darin out from prison. While Laia navigates her life as a slave to the vicious commandant who dishes out lashes and cruel punishments frequently, she tries her best to survive and unravel the plans of the commandant.

“Fear can be good, Laia. It can keep you alive. But don’t let it control you. Don’t let it sow doubts within you. When the fear takes over, use the only thing more powerful, more indestructible, to fight it: your spirit. Your heart.”

Both Elias and Laia have interesting perspectives. With Elias being so different from his fellow Masks, he stood out to everyone. Despite being the best, Elias’s disgust and despise of the regime couldn’t be hidden for long. During the trials, he was consistently pushed to the edge and abhorred that he had no choice. Laia’s scared. Terrified of the commandant and her brutal ways, afraid for her captured brother whose location and situation are unknown, and frightened because she could never be like her fearless parents.

You are full, Laia. Full of life and dark and strength and spirit. You are in our dreams. You will burn, for you are an ember in the ashes. That is your destiny. Being a Resistance spy–that is the smallest part of you. That is nothing.”

If you’re searching for romance, there is and I’m terrified. Experiencing a spark with the brooding yet sweet red-haired Resistance rebel, Keenan, and having unexpected tender moments with an emperor candidate, Elias, was the last thing Laia wanted.

Still, it happened. Suddenly thinking about kissing his best friend and the only female Mask-to-be in their generation, Helen, and the beautiful slave girl he couldn’t stop thinking about, Laia, wasn’t in Elias’s plan at all. This love quadrant is going to blow up in everyone’s faces and I don’t think I’ll be ready.

“But there are two kinds of guilt, girl: the kind that drowns you until you’re useless, and the kind that fires your soul to purpose.”

An Ember in the Ashes doesn’t shy away from the hardships and punishments faced by the enslaved Scholars including those that were inflicted on Laia and Izzi. Any small mistake will attract unwanted attention from the worst of people. The vile attitudes of the Martials who think that Scholars are beneath them, and so should do every of their bidding is continuously highlighted with the bleary and somber setting of the Blackcliff Academy.

Sabaa Tahir developed the world and its history incredibly well. There are still many questions to be answered and more to be explored.

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