by Sabaa Tahir
In, An Ember in the Ashes we follow Laia and Elias, two people with two very different lives. Laia is a Scholar, a suppressed people living under the strict ruling of the Martials. They fear for their lives every day. Elias is a Mask, a force trained to kill and torture for the Empire. When their stories align, Laia have to get into Blackcliff, the school where Masks are trained, and Elias wants out.
This book was a win for me, that much I can say. I flew through it and I found myself constantly wanting to read more and it was hard to put it down. Sabaa Tahir is great with tension, of building up each chapter in a way that makes it impossible not to read the next one and the next one. And it was this tension that made me end the book feeling like it was great, that it was a clear 5/5 stars for me. And because of that feeling, I am going to give it a full score.
The relationship between Elias and Laia is instantly full of tension. He’s a Mask and she’s grown up fearing them. It makes for a really interesting dynamic and I think Sabaa Tahir did a great job portraying their relationship here. It was one of the best things in the book for me.
However, on further analysis and think it becomes clear that there are plenty of issues that gets buried under that tension. This that I’m only able to overlook because that initial feeling was great.
This story is presented in both Laia’s and Elias’s perspective, but we start out with Laia and somehow the story is structured in a way that surrounds her more than him. That said, this is Elias’s story without doubt. I know that sounds confusing in a way, but I’m going to try and explain here without spoiling anything. Laia’s main objective here is to break her brother out of prison, that’s what drives the story and that’s what we start with. But shortly, Elias’s story takes over and by the end I’m left with that sense that Laia was there only to push Elias’s story to the end of the book. Laia was sort of left hanging a little in my opinion. This story is more about the brutal trials that Elias and his friend Helene (and the other Mask in training) are forced to endure. Nothing bad about that, but it’s not really what we were promised at the beginning.
The other thing is Laia’s character. She’d supposed to be 17 or something like that, but she reads like 12. She’s childish, whiny and incapable of doing much at all. I see the reason for much of that, and I get that there has to be room to grow here, but she shouldn’t feel like a child when she’s almost an adult.
And Elias, he’s well developed in a way, but I still find his core motivation a bit flawed. He doesn’t want to me a Mask, because they are awful people. He’s not like that. Ok, I can accept that. But what I find strange is how he waits until he graduates to plan an escape. He’s lived through years and years of torture, from the age of 6 to 20, he’s lived a life consisting of nothing but torture. Yet it is just days before he’ll become a true Mask and be let out of the school that he decides he’s had enough? I don’t see why he didn’t escape sooner, neither do I see why he doesn’t just wait for graduation and leaves once he’s been sent on a mission. Surely it must be easier to escape as a Mask on missions than leaving a heavily guarded school (which is more like a prison honestly). I have a feeling there was a line or two in the book explaining this, but it wasn’t enough. His story here is too convenient to fit the plot of the book, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it just needs a proper explanation to be believable.
Still, like I said in the beginning, there are so much tension and pull in this book that you just fly through it and doesn’t notice all the flaws unless you really analyze the story. Therefore, this book will get a full score from me with a warning, if you don’t like reading about torture, death and basically any other brutality you can think of, then don’t pick up this book, because it’s dark.