An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir (Review)

“‘There are two kinds of guilt,’ I say softly. ‘The kind that’s a burden and the kind that gives you purpose. Let your guilt be your fuel. Let it remind you of who you want to be. Draw a line in your mind. Never cross it again. You have a soul. It’s damaged but it’s there. Don’t let them take it from you, Elias.'”

Rating: 4 stars

I picked this up off my neverending stack of library books and nearly put it down again, as I’ve been caught in so many series lately that I’ve been making a concerted effort to read standalones or completed duologies. Reading this book was a complete accident, but boy am I glad I did. 

The back of the book states ‘Game of Thrones fans will relish’, which is normally the kind of over-used comparison that makes me sigh and move away from a book. Here, it actually feels justified. Tahir’s worldbuilding is beautiful, and she managed to masterfully create a society that made me not only believe in it wholly, fantasy setting and all, but made me angry. 

The world that Laia and Elias live in is dark and horrible and awful. The Commandant is a foul bitch, mutilating her slaves when she isn’t letting young soldiers rape them. It is a book full to the brim with rape and death, and a close up look at the gruesome realities of ‘conquering’ states, with a societally ingrained idea that certain groups are sub-human. But what I found more powerful than these predictably awful characters was the unpredictable. One of the supporting characters, presented mostly as a positive character, and in my opinion incredibly likeable and relatable for most of the novel, argues for these racist and classist views because they are all she knows. This is a powerful reflection on how many people have these trained, ingrained beliefs, and really made me pause to consider the way this novel reflects on modern society.

Elias and Laia are two characters that desperately want something. Elias wants freedom for himself, to do good, and Laia wants freedom for her brother, to do the right thing. Both find themselves constantly manipulated by outside parties, making half-promises to convince them to play a part in different schemes by convincing them that they can get what they want if only they do just one more thing. Both of their stories broke my heart, and I found myself deeply engaged in their personal quests, wanting to shout at my book whenever they came across another obstacle. They are an interesting pair, different in many ways and the same in others, and that made me enjoy their relationship far more than I usually enjoy love matches in fantasy books with complicated over-arching plot. It was handled well enough that I never had my usual moment of “isn’t there something more important to being doing?”, which even some of my favourite books suffer from. 

Tahir’s prose is beautiful, artfully constructed but never overcomplicated. The novel is simplistic at its core, and with such a complicated backstory and world to understand, this benefits it greatly. What it resulted in was an easy to read, engaging book that I actually struggled to put down, eating with one hand and grumpily putting away to hang out my laundry. I stayed up to race to the end tonight, because I’d never last until my lunchbreak at work tomorrow. 

The book had a satisfying ending, of sorts, but there was no doubt that it was written with a sequel in mind, and now it’s just the impatient wait for my library to tell me the next one is in stock! Despite having intended to avoid series’, I am fully invested in this one, and I regret absolutely nothing.

“You are an ember in the ashes, Elias Veturius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.”

“You are full, Laia. Full of life and dark and strength and spirit. You are in our dreams. You will burn, for you are an ember in the ashes.”

Note: This review was copied verbatim from my Goodreads account dated May 14th 2019.

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