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Today I am going to be reviewing An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. This was actually my third time reading this book. I know, crazy. I have loved this book every time I’ve read it. None of my rereads were to relive the magic, per se. I reread because I honestly didn’t remember enough about this complex world to continue with the series. I reread An Ember in the Ashes right before I read A Torch Against the Night and believe me, I tried to skip the first book and only reread the second before reading A Reaper At the Gates. It didn’t work. A year apart from this world caused me to lose the intricate knowledge I once had about the characters and storyline. I was able to get through this book for the third time without ever feeling bored, which is a true testament to Tahir’s writing ability. I was just as involved in the story and ready to see where it took me, rather than waiting for specific moments, as happens in many rereads.
My biggest problem with this book was the writing style. Don’t get me wrong by the end, the lyrical prose was beautiful and worked in naturally. However, that was not the case from the start. I didn’t even notice the forced similes and metaphors during my first two reads of this book. Maybe since I’ve started reviewing books I’ve become more critical. It ticked me off to see Tahir waste her talent on such cliches. The fact that the style gradually became more unique and found a singular voice is probably the only indicator that this was a debut novel.
The world building was confusing at the beginning. So much information was being thrown in at once without coming up naturally. After seeing the characters interact in this new world using these new terms, I was able to get a better grasp on what was going on. Plus, the information dumps at the beginning prevented breaking the flow later on, which I guess is better.
There was great pacing. The quick chapters and clever alternating between perspectives created a light feeling. I was able to get through the last 300 pages of this book in about two settings, which usually doesn’t happen unless I block off that time to read before hand. It’s more impressive when you take into account that I already knew everything that was going to happen, yet was still engaged enough to fly through.
The dialogue was excellent. I liked how the style changed between both characters and the way different characters speak to others. It helped establish relationships naturally.
I’ve been seeing a lot of strong character development in the YA books I’ve been reading. The main difference with the strong character development in this book was the timing. Tahir made sure that pivotal moments and the buildup of certain emotions led to gradual change. It didn’t feel like she shoehorned in sudden changes in character opinions at the end to create certain revelations. Tahir was realistic and subtle.
Laia is realistic and relatable in ways not normally explored with YA fiction. When was the last time you met a heroine who was not naturally brave and focused everything she did on familial love? It’s refreshing to meet a character who reacts to her situations in ways I could see myself reacting. I was a fan of her character throughout pretty much to whole story minus the last scene during Elias and Helene’s goodbye. Laia was just acting uncharacteristically bratty and insensitive.
Elias was lovely. Strong, smart, compassionate, perfect. Tahir toed the line of making him almost too perfect. I appreciate how the reader got insight into his self-reflection and fight to become better than his mother, since it created a deep connection.
I LOVE Helene. She is strong and smart and humane. I actually like how she’s so focused on following the rules and wants to prove that everyone underestimates her.
I cannot wait to see Marcus again. Tahir has so many possible directions to go with after molding him through these completely biased opinions. There were lost opportunities for exploring what Marcus was really thinking, but I have confidence that he will get the time he needs to become the villain or anti-hero set up in this book.
Keenan was comparatively bland. Unlike Marcus, I do not care to learn more about him. Keenan is the embodiment of what Laia needs in a one-sided way. There’s no need to waste time on someone who lacks true complexity.
The Commandant was wonderful! I love villains who are so terrible and genuinely believe their purposes. She was evil and enjoyed it. All of her descriptions led to building this sort of ideal about what she was and I like not knowing how many of those beliefs are supported. There is a lovely amount of mystery, which makes more more anxious to continue with the series. She was a villain who perfectly embodies the evil of her world.
I don’t even know how to keep up with all the romances. Was it a love square? A love pentagon? The idea of having so much teen angst and jealously overlap is over the top (for my taste), yet not a lot happens. This book was mostly buildup for the relationships that I’m sure will intensify in the coming books. I’m excited to see who ends up with who, although I appreciate how all the drama takes a backseat to the larger, more important story. I’m rooting for Elias and Laia. They have the most “real” foundation and potential of working out in my mind, especially shown by their conversation after the Third Trial. Not to forget that dance they had at the Moon Festival. Their chemistry is way off the charts.
There was something off for me about the idea of the trials. They seemed too cliche for a well-crafted book, like this one. But the scene with the third trial made the whole concept worth it. Tahir deftly described guilt, duty, and grief. I was able to feel Elias’ pain and understand Helene’s methods of coping. The perspectives were all given the appropriate amount of explanation to give me a well-rounded view. I got emotional while reading how Elias found out who he was going to fight and that doesn’t happen often for me.
The resistance plot twist was obvious and borderline cliche. I don’t think Tahir’s intentions were necessarily to trick the reader, I think they were to create an impactful moment for Laia, which was definitely done well. After everything it felt like I went through with Laia, I was left just as dumbfounded and betrayed.
The ending obviously made me desperate to pick up the next book. However, the book was contained and complete enough to leave me with some peace. Tahir did not end in the middle of the action for the sake of selling another book.
Once again, I can say with absolute confidence that this is a 5 star debut. The story is unique and it it’s core, has deep messages about humanity. YA books tend to romanticize things that would normally be horrible, like forbidden romance, poverty, servitude, and death. Tahir was able to capture a balance between the wonder and harsh realities of a fantasy world in a way I haven’t seen anywhere else. I cannot wait to continue with the series (again) and I look forward to seeing Tahir’s writing ability get even stronger.
Thank you for reading my review and I hope you will join me again as we go off to amazing places.