NB: It has been a few months since I read this.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir was one of my favorite books of 2015. It tells the story of a Martial soldier Elias Veturius and a Scholar slave Laia who is trying to save her brother by spying in the military academy where Elias is about to graduate. It is told in alternating first person chapters from Laia and Elias’ points of view. It sharts out with a bang with an attack on Laia’s home and basically never lets the tention go. Even in the quiet moments of the story you never feel as if any of the characters are truly safe.
I despise love triangles. To me they show disloyalty and a lack of ture emotional involvement. Why should I care if the MC clearly doesn’t? An Ember in the Asheshas a love quadrilateral. There is an abundance of sexual tension. And you know what? I LOVED it? It was an examination of all they ways that we can fall in love. Instant attraction, a shared history, someone you have a ton in common with? It also explores the idea of choice. Everyone may be attracted to more than one person but acting on that attraction is a matter of specific choice that the characters make. Their feelings are not uncontrollable.
I love how she took elements that we are familiar with and managed to make them into something that felt fresh and new. The whole world was a take on Roman Empire (or was in my head) and definitely didn’t shy away from grit and violence. This isn’t a cute and cuddly book. In some ways it is like a horror film. There is a closed set that our heroine cannot leave (Blackcliff), monsters (the Commandant and Marcus), and some pretty gruesome violence.
“I don't need to believe in the supernatural, not when there's worse that roams the night.”
I thought that it was interesting that both Elias and Laia have pasts that are mysterious to themselves. As the book goes on they find out more and more about who they are from other characters. It isn’t wholly comfortable. Like anyone they have an idea of who they are and the more information they are given the more they question their own vision of their selves.
“There are two kinds of guilt: the kind that drowns you until you’re useless, and the kind that fires your soul to purpose.”
Guilt is also a theme that is explored. Elis’ journey make me think of a documentary that I saw once about a man who worked with death row inmates and how he would say to them that they are more than the worst thing that they had ever done. Elias has difficulty separating who he is from what he has done. There might not seem to be another choice but he holds onto responsibility as if it is something precious. Laia, on the other hand, only has one moment that she has guilt about but she agonizes over it.
The writing hit just the right note for me vacillating between extreme introspection at time and furious action. This was a fast pace and enjoyable book and I am looking forward to the sequel. (Read my review of A Torch Against the night here) And by “looking forward to” I mean that I am going to obsess about it until I get it. Because I must know what comes next.