An Ember in the Ashes #1
Fantasy, YA, Romance
Razorbill; April 28, 2015
464 pages (ebook) 15hr 22min (audio)
3.8 / 5 ✪
In the Martial Empire, no one is free.
Laia is a Scholar—one the Empire’s second class citizens. Her people have been oppressed by the ruling class for years, good for nothing except servitude and slavery. Some few have elevated to craftsmen and above, but none are trusted. Laia’s parents wanted something better for the Scholars; so they were killed. Years later Laia lives with her grandparents and her brother, Darin, but that too is about to change.
When he’s caught with sketches of a Martial forge, Darin is arrested for treason. Her grandparents are killed, their shop burned to the ground; the work of a Mask—the Empire’s faceless assassins. Laia manages to escape—but her alone. With no other option, she is forced to turn to the Resistance, though they’ve already ruined her life once.
Elias is a soldier. Born a Veturius—the daughter of one of the most renowned and elite families in the Empire—he was the son Keris never wanted. As such he grew up a faceless tribesman, before he was found out and brought home to the Empire by his grandfather. There he was sent to Blackcliff, the prestigious military academy, to follow in his mother’s footsteps. It was an honor he never dreamt of and a fate he never wanted.
As Laia is a slave by birth, so too is Elias.
Yet neither is keen to stay that way.
Elias plans to defect, to leave the Empire—and his family—behind. But the Augurs, immortal architects of the Empire, have other plans. See, the Emperor is dying, and without an heir, the line won’t last the year. And so a contest is announced to determine the next ruler—and the Augurs want it to be Elias.
Meanwhile, all Laia wants is her brother. But the Resistance isn’t willing to free him for nothing. So to help her brother, Laia is recruited as a spy. She is to gather information about the Empire: their movements, their secrets, anything useful—and report it to the Resistance. But to free Darin, she has to find something worthwhile. And to find something worthwhile, she has to go somewhere important. Somewhere like Blackcliff.
I read about 70% of this as an audiobook, before my library loan expired. Then, I read the rest as an ebook. While both were decent platforms, the audio was highly immersive, with great voice talent that really got into their parts. Though I probably read through the most tense, thrilling, and heart-pounding sections at the end, I never enjoyed the story more than in its audio-format.
All in all, I was a big fan of AEitA. But… I think it was a little too intense for me. This book has all the tension of a YA fantasy under the constant strain of puberty. I mean, CONSTANT. Laia is high-energy paranoid, and with the stress of having to save her only brother WHILE going undercover in Blackcliff knowing that all the previous spies that have done so have died AND ostensibly doing it alone—it kind of shows. She is highly strung, but for a very good reason. This made her chapters all high-energy, fully pumped up, heart-pounding stress and tension. Elias, meanwhile, is almost as intense; trying to survive Blackcliff, while dealing with the added pressure garnered by the name Veturius, and the constant tug-of-war between his desire to desert the Empire and the loyalty he shares with his few friends and comrades, particularly his best friend Helene—whom he may or may not be in love with. [Yes, I realize those were both run-on sentences—no, I am not rewriting them.]
Both POVs confronted the normal issues YA stories deal with. But instead of one or two, they decided to tackle pretty much ALL OF THEM. Which, understandably, made everything pretty intense, energetic, and angsty. I found myself conflicted between the desire to find out what happened next and the need to stop reading and avoid the wave of stress that only YA development can cause.
As such, the romance was in parts fierce, intense and terribly awkward. As most YA romance is, generally. While I loved the characters in AEitA, none were stronger than those of its love-triangle. And while I hate everything about love-triangles in books, since I loved all the characters within this one—I still hated it. I’m not getting into this now. Or ever. Sufficient to say that I find said triangles to be awkward, annoying, angsty, and an unwelcome flashback to my youth where everything was awkward and so brutally important and cringe-worthy all the time. The romance wasn’t a bad-teen-romcom or together-forever romance. But it wasn’t not these things either.
As I said, I loved the characters. Elias and Helene dominated one half of the text, and as the story progressed, both characters continued to grow and develop. As does the relationship between the two. On the other side, we have Laia and Keenan (a Resistance fighter). I never bought into this romance, which seemed like it was introduced just to counter the possible Elias-Helene one. Keenan barely gets any screen time, and remains as weak and unfleshed a character as when he was introduced. And, while I mostly enjoyed Laia, she also infuriated me. Where Elias developed, she pretty much remained the same. Stubborn, paranoid, and standoffish—pretty much early stages Katniss throughout the whole book. Towards the end, her chapters began to annoy me in a very startling way—which was both good and bad. Bad, as she was frustrating. Good, as it demonstrated just how much I had bought into the story.
The characters of Markus and Keris were also quite strong. Okay, so mainly just Keris. Where Markus was your classic unhinged sociopath, Keris showed depth, change and insight—a potent combination for a character obviously designed to be a villain. Over the course of the book, we get to see quite a lot more of Elias’s mother than would be comfortable, but I was surprised to find a logic behind her thoughts and actions, and a justification later on. I’m not giving anything away—just that it was eye-opening to say the least.
The only other weakness I can think of is the setting. The world isn’t very well fleshed out in the first book, something I hope is corrected in further installments. I’d like to see more of the land beyond deserts, imposing fortresses, prisons, cities and tunnels. It all had kind of a dark and dreary cast in my imagination—I’d like to see a bit more vibrance from the setting in the future. Furthermore, a greater understanding of the supernatural world would be nice as well. We’re given just a peek of it in AEitA, with hardly any accompanying explanation.
While it may seem like your classic, run-of-the-mill YA fantasy-romance, An Ember in the Ashes isn’t satisfied with just tackling a few of the YA tropes—it does them all. Youthful development, romance, growth, love, hate, war, depth, sacrifice and compromise—seriously, it does them ALL. And though it helped make this read incredibly immersive, it was the characters that made it real for me. Elias and Helene, and Laia, were strong enough to carry the story through a dark and dreary, unassuming world, filled with men and monsters alike, as well as some of both. What brought me back to earth was the romance—a cringe-worthy dual love-triangle—one side of which never felt real. Adding to this was Laia’s refusal to develop, maintaining the detached, stubborn cast she’d cultivated throughout the entire text. When the rubber hit the road and all the threads converged, Laia stubbornly kept on as she had, annoying me and the plot alike.
While it has both ups and downs, An Ember in the Ashes definitely puts more to the good than the ill, making it a must-read YA fantasy that hopefully will only get better with time. A tetralogy (means “four”) that is set to wrap up later this year, An Ember in the Ashes continues with A Torch Against the Night, a book I’m definitely looking forward to reading. Probably as an audiobook. After that… we’ll see how it goes.