An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
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 is the first book in a series of four books. It starts with Laia who lives with her grandparents and her older brother Darin. They are scholars living in a world ruled by martials. Scholars are classified as slaves in the martial world. Laia learns the healing arts from her grandfather, and her family has chosen to live without standing out in a world that views them as slaves. They are happy until Darin, Laia’s big brother, chooses to stand out and a mask, the cruelest of the martial soldiers, comes to their house to arrest Darin. Laia’s quiet world changes and she is thrown into a new path. One where she needs to survive and find a way to get her brother released from prison. Laia is not privileged, and she is not free. Her greatest wish in this book is to find a way to save her brother Darin from a cruel prison ran by the martials.
Elias is the son of the powerful ruthless commander who rules the martial military academy called Blackcliff. He is the best of his class, a prince of the silver masks training at Blackliff. Problem is, Elias does not subscribe to the cruelty and ruthless nature beat and drummed into him at the academy. He wants out and can’t wait to escape the military life he hates. He just needs to escape without anyone knowing, otherwise deserters face death by his own mother’s hand. Elias is privileged but he is not free. His biggest wish is to live a life of his own choosing, away from Blackcliff.
When these two characters meet, Laia must get over the fact that Elias is a mask. His people oppress hers and one of the masks killed her grandparents and imprisoned Darin. Elias must deal with the fact that Laia looks at him and sees a martial who oppresses her people. She only sees the nature of a mask: cruelty, ruthlessness, murderer. Even if Elias secretly rejects all these things and wishes to do right by the innocent.
An Ember in the Ashes is about these two characters finding each other at Blackcliff Military Academy. Laia ends up serving The Commandant in a strange twist of fate and survives her brutality. In a way, Elias fights to hold on to his soul despite his mother, The Commandant, and survives her too.
I loved the contrast of these two characters most. Their realities are different, but their thoughts align. They both want freedom, even though it is not obvious to them, which makes the atrocities they endure apart quite profound. Blackcliff comes close to what I imagine hell to look like, Elias goes through brutal training. It is made even more rough because the head task master is his mother, The Commandant. She is frightening and cruel. Laia gets to see and endure the Commandant’s cruelty, which gives her a strong resolve to survive, to fight and find a way to get her brother Darin out of prison. Laia’s daring resolve brings this novel to a stunning ending that makes you want to get to the next book.
An Ember in the Ashes has a host of unforgettable characters. Of note is Helene who takes on a role of righteous martial. She believes in the martials orders and the rule of law laid down by the martials. She is the character Elias is fighting not to become and the character Laia is fighting against. Their world from Helene’s perspective is quite severe, there is no room for the gray parts, only black and white and no changes or deviations allowed. She is the product of the current system, and comparing her to Elias, I was excited to see him break away from the expected mold.
The world in An Ember in the Ashes is harsh and full of characters on the cusp of a revolution. Slaves (Scholars) fighting back against the Martials. The Martials meting out their version of justice in the most harsh and cruelest of ways. In the midst of the chaos, Laia never stops trying to free her brother, Darin from prison. At the same time Elias seeks a way out of the madhouse he calls home even when he knows the path is not easy. As Cain tells Elias, “You’re an ember in the ashes, Elias Veturius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.” Book One is a great introduction of these amazing characters who are all thought to be An Ember in the Ashes. Sabaa Tahir is a a brilliant kehanni.