An Ember in the Ashes

I’m back, baby! I’ll be getting back to Eragon shortly, but I’d like to take a a moment to review a more recent book, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I’ll also be posting parts of this review on GoodReads, so don’t worry–I’m only plagiarizing myself.

An Ember in the Ashes follows the stories of two main characters: Laia and Elias, with each chapter switching between their perspectives. They lead very different lives in the Empire; Laia is a poor Scholar, while Elias is one of the top students at the elite military academy, Blackcliff. When Laia’s brother is jailed for treason and her family is killed, she seeks the help of the Resistance to save him. In exchange for freeing him, she agrees to spy on the Commandant, the leader of Blackcliff. Elias dreams of freedom outside of Blackcliff and plans to desert after his graduation, even though doing so is punishable by death. When fate intervenes, Elias stays at Blackcliff, where he finally meets Laia, and their lives are forever changed.

As long as you don’t mind first-person present tense or changing character perspectives every chapter, the prose is quite good. I never came across a line that made me want to pull my hair out because it was so poorly phrased, which is more than I can say for some of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog. Even so, some of Laia’s chapters just felt like they were padding, and only part of the book to keep with the pattern of switching between the two characters. This is especially true during Part 2, when most of Laia’s chapters are just details of the Commandant’s abuse. They don’t reveal any new information about Laia or the Commandant, nor do they move the plot forward. I’m all for treating your characters horribly, but at least make sure that their suffering is for something. Laia herself is a rather insipid character. She doesn’t grow much throughout the novel, her most daring moment being when she agrees to spy for the Resistance. Even that seems out-of-character for her, as she’s quite meek and doesn’t take risks. Elias’s side of the story is more interesting, and he’s one of the few characters in the book I ended up liking. At times, I really felt that the novel could benefit by removing Laia’s chapters entirely.

Laia’s character isn’t the only one that needs to be fleshed out. The Commandant – who is also Elias’s mother – is the lead villain in the story. She is evil because…well, because she’s evil. She enjoys abusing her slaves, killing members of the Resistance, and actively tries to get others to murder Elias. Her reason behind all this? She’s evil. She’s never made even slightly sympathetic, and the readers are never really shown her motives.

The world building is also problematic. The first two chapters are in media res. It might be exciting, but because the book’s just starting out, the reader has nothing invested in the two main characters. We don’t have any reason to like them, and can’t really appreciate the impact of their actions until later in the book. Exposition in the beginning of the book feels heavy-handed and shoved in for the benefit of the audience. In later chapters it comes more naturally. Or maybe I’d just gotten used to it at that point.

An Ember in the Ashes wasn’t really a book for me. Sometimes I thought the book would redeem itself, but for everything in it that I liked, it did two things that I didn’t. At the end of the day, its flaws outweighed its strengths.

Still, if it sounds like a book you might enjoy, check it out. I just wouldn’t recommend paying full price.

I only came to read An Ember in the Ashes in the first place was because my sister and I are in a small book club. Obviously, this wasn’t my selection for the group. My sister and I were not overly thrilled with the prospect of reading yet another young adult book staring a girl in an oppressed society starting a revolution and finding true love along the way. To help keep us both sane–and give us something to smile about while we dragged ourselves through this–I texted her a one-sentence review of each chapter. Please, enjoy my descent into madness.

  • Chapter 1: I read this chapter three hours ago and I already forgot the brother’s name because that’s how little I care.
  • Chapter 2: There’s so little world building or characterization that I neither understand the importance of or care about anything that’s happening.
  • Chapter 3: All the things I dislike in this chapter won’t fit in a single sentence.
  • Chapter 4: If Elias wanted to desert, why didn’t he run when the school literally kicked him out to survive on his own for four years?
  • Chapter 5: Have I ever mentioned how much I hate first-person present tense?
  • Chapter 6: Not really loving the way the exposition was handled here, but it’s more than the rest of the book has given us so far.
  • Chapter 7: At this point, “character development” would mean that the main character develops a personality.
  • Chapter 8: Just once, I would like to read a young adult fantasy novel that never uses the word “destiny”.
  • Chapter 9: I’m a little amazed that I have the willpower to not throw this book across the room.
  • Chapter 10: You know, it is possible to write a young adult fiction without having a “chosen one”.
  • Chapter 11: Wait, when did Laia grow a spine?
  • Chapter 12: The more I think about the details of Blackcliff Academy, the less sense it makes.
  • Chapter 13: I really hope the Commandant becomes an actual character, and not just a villain who’s evil for the sake of being evil.
  • Chapter 15: When will this end?
  • Chapter 16:  Every time this book comes close to being cool, it ruins it.
  • Chapter 17: Laia’s chapters are nothing but light torture porn.
  • Chapter 18: I seriously suspect Sabaa Tahir has mommy issues.
  • Chapter 19: This is not how you build a strong female lead.
  • Chapter 20: Changing perspectives every chapter makes the slow story progression less noticeable, and I’m not sure if Tahir is a genius, or can’t get a handle on pacing.
  • Chapter 21: All of Laia’s chapters in a nutshell: Laia is sad because someone either tells her she makes a lousy spy or hurts her.
  • Chapter 22: There’s one female character with depth, and her entire arc is about men lusting after her.
  • Chapter 23: I make a motion to replace all Laia chapters with Spiro Teluman chapters.
  • Chapter 24: Can we talk for a second about how Elias and Helene didn’t actually use their cunning to pass the Trial of Cunning?
  • Chapter 25: This chapter made me so happy because it means I’m halfway through this waste of paper.
  • Chapter 26: I strongly suspect Helene’s sudden burst of racism is because Tahir noticed she was a much better female lead than Laia.
  • Chapter 27: Generally, it takes normal human beings more than thirty-second conversations to fall in love with each other, no matter how beautiful they are.
  • Chapter 28: This is just four pages of Elias thinking Laia is hot.
  • Chapter 29: If the flirting in this chapter was any more awkward or forced, it would be the second Avengers movie. #2Burns1Stone
  • Chapter 30: This book talks about sexual violence a lot.
  • Chapter 31:  Achievement unlocked: cameo character is more intriguing than main character.
  • Chapter 32: I also vote to remove insipid and predictable love triangles.
  • Chapter 33: NOPE.
  • Chapter 34: Can we go one chapter without mentioning rape?  
  • Chapter 35: I’m not sure what I hate more: that Helene goes completely against her established character, or that Laia’s only role in this book is to be a punching bag.
  •  Chapter 36: The Helene-Elias romance subplot is so, so dumb.
  • Chapter 37:  Five bucks says the Resistance is going to betray Laia.
  • Chapter 38: And now we’ll take a break from an Ember in the Ashes to bring you a less interesting version of The Hunger Games.
  • Chapter 39: You know, this backstory would have been really useful AT THE BEGINNING OF THE FUCKING BOOK.
  • Chapter 40: There are so many logical holes in the Trial of Strength I wouldn’t be able to list them all here.
  • Chapter 41: Laia, how are you this stupid and still alive?
  • Chapter 42: So many eyerolls.
  • Chapter 43:If the Commandant knew that Laia was a slave since the Moon Festival, why didn’t she kill her much sooner?
  • Chapter 44: The “Trial of Loyalty” is really just a test of who could get to Laia the fastest.
  • Chapter 45: I call bullshit on Laia suddenly be able to take the Resistance leader hostage, in his own hideout, surrounded by his supporters.
  • Chapter 46: This is the closest thing we get to an explanation of the Commandant’s anti-social behavior, and it still fails to explain anything or make her an iota more sympathetic.
  • Chapter 47: Laia is way overdue to become a strong heroine, but when it actually happens, it just is out of character for her.
  • Chapter 48: I’m supposed to feel something at Elias’s rapidly impending death, but mostly I’m annoyed that all he’s doing is whining and quoting Serenity.
  • Chapter 49: We really shouldn’t have to wait until the second-to-last chapter of the book for the main character to do something useful.
  • Chapter 50: OH THANK GOD I’M DONE

Final Thoughts:


I hated this book. The love triangles were unnecessary and sloppily written, the magical aspects go unexplained, the villains are never given any depth, Laia is almost on par with Bella Swan as a female lead, and the book doesn’t even freaking end. I’ve read 50 chapters of this crap, and nothing gets resolved: not the romantic subplots, Laia’s quest to save her brother, or even a basic explanation of Helene’s sudden magical powers. Nope, there’s a sequel coming out, and someone’s already got the movie rights.

And, to get on my soapbox for a minute, this is also on par with Twilight for bad female role models. Helene is the token strong girl, but her entire character arc is about men lusting after her, and her doing anything she can to keep Elias alive. Including swearing fealty to the man who has directly said that he’s going to rape her. Laia’s not much better, as her arc is almost entirely her getting tortured or beaten up (and then rescued by Elias)–for another male character, albeit her brother–and she doesn’t do anything proactive until the very end of the book. The one female character whose arc doesn’t revolve around a man is the Commandant, who is a heartless monster (for no fucking reason).

This book is 446 pages of drivel. Sabaa Tahir’s prose is well-written, but the characters are flat and boring, and the story has no satisfying resolution.

Screw this. It’s my turn to choose the next book for book club, and after reading Me Before YouThe Nightingale, and now, An Ember in the Ashes, I need to get away from all this stupid chick lit. If you need me, I’ll be nose deep in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


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