Initial reaction: Oh man, this is going to be a long review, but only because I have a lot to talk about. In the end, I was fully enthralled with Sabaa Tahir's "An Ember in the Ashes" - it kept me on my toes throughout the read, and I really liked seeing how the characters grew from the beginning of the book to the ending despite some rough bumps along the way. The audio reading for this was very good, and I loved both of the narrators.
I will say that I took issue with a couple of things along the way in the work, but I'll leave that for discussion in the full review to come.
Sabaa Tahir's "An Ember in the Ashes" had a ton of mentions and buzz before its release, and I was in the midst of that as I'd received both a preview galley from NetGalley as well as a booklet from Barnes and Noble. For what it was worth, I liked the opening chapters enough to give the book a go once it released. My twin sister even said "Hey, this was the book you talked to me about a little while ago, right?" We were in Target the other day and she saw the hardcover version for about $15 a pop. She was going to get it, but I said "Nope, already have the Audible version, I'll let you know how it goes."
I'm actually glad I gave this a shot with my Audible credit because both of the narrators did very well with the character voices. Fiona Hardingham and Steve West were both nice matches for the characters of Laia and Elias respectively. I thought they gave a good emotional punch to some of the book's more intense moments, and even their coming to terms.
The book trades between the perspectives of Laia, a slave girl, and Elias, a soldier/Mask working for the Empire. When we meet Laia, she's in a position where her family is brutally murdered, her brother taken into captivity for working against the Empire. She flees, seeking aid from the group that her parents were formally a part of in order to get her brother back. When we meet Elias, he's a disillusioned soldier preparing to flee. He's worked his entire life after being cast aside by his sadistic mother in secret (and trust me, she's eeeeevil) and put on a pedestal for representing his grandfather's familial line. He longs for freedom, an escape from the darkness of his present role, but as an Augur (something of a soothsayer) fortells him of his fate, he decides to rethink his plans of desertion.
It's interesting how this book chose to weave these separate, yet progressively intertwining stories of confinement/imprisonment, but for two separate stories and experiences. Very nice narrative theme. I liked that part of it, but I'll admit that it was a struggle to become immersed in Laia and Elias's journeys at first because of how the narrative chose to set it up. There's very little true worldbuilding and environment immersion as it's mostly contextual (having it set in a Rome-like world doesn't tell me jack squat - I wanted to sink my teeth into this place), a lot of terms thrown at you at once, and plus - while there's quite a bit of brutality told, it feels like it's not that intimate to the character experiences with as much depth as I expected in places. Laia suffers greatly with how the Masks tore her family apart in the beginning, but it took a while for her to get to the next step in terms of enlisting help from a group her parents used to be connected with in the Resistance. In Elias's narrative, there's a lot of placating and inner debate as Elias decides whether to stay or run, but it seems oddly distant as well.
Eventually, Laia and Elias make their decisions because they don't really have any other choice (indeed, that means the characters are a bit passive to start, and that frustrated me). Laia becomes a spy for the Resistance, becoming a maid for one of the most brutal commanders in the Empire, while Elias decides to follow his destiny in completing his graduation as a Mask and enrolling in the trials to potentially become Emperor, a path that promises the freedom he seeks. These two naive characters (let's be real: they are naive) think they have a shiny carrot dangling in front of them in order to get what they want - Laia saving her brother, Elias reaching his goal of freedom - but the journey is never as cut and dry as they expect it to be. In fact, it's a hard line to get there.
Laia endures brutal abuse as a servant while forming some tough bonds along the way, while Elias faces tough moral challenges and betrayals of loyalty in his marching through the trials. I was drawn into Laia's relationships with Cook and Servant Girl (both of them were great characters as I came to know them), as well as the Commandant's brutal psyche (I actually really felt fascinated about her ruthlessness and wanted to know more about where it was rooted - that was eventually answered in some brilliant ways as the book went on). I was also drawn into Elias's relationship with his childhood friend Helene. Helene is a seemingly strong female character who seems to stand well on her own and is an excellent battle partner and fighter. I liked her. I liked her a *lot*.
Laia and Elias's stories are separate for a time with narrative coincidences linking them together, but the two characters eventually cross paths, and it results in? A love quadrangle. Love quadrangles are far more interesting to follow than the usual triangle, but when the intimacies are told more than shown - it's hard to have a connection. I didn't really feel the purported romantic links between these characters because they were told more than shown, and it started impacting the decisions made by the characters in a big way, which annoyed me. Yes, I know people do stupid things in the name of love, but still...really? Helene and Elias both annoyed me to a point in this vein, and Laia felt far too passive in some places.
I did not like the simulated rape scene in this book. Don't get me wrong, I could understand it was done to save a certain character's life where the other choice was certain death, and the author treats it as being a disgusting thing, but that opened up a debate in my head as to how this book chose to depict rape in general. The context as depicted didn't sit right with me. Rape was noted as a measure of domination, a weapon, a power over those that were weaker in the dominance over Scholars, who were servants of the Empire, and even threats made against Helene as she was taunted by her peers for being a woman in a male-dominated Mask league. But for me, I hated how it wasn't really treated for the gravity it carried - it was a plot device to emphasize the brutality of the world, and the way it was depicted carried an emptiness that wasn't really focused. I don't know how else to describe it.
But, despite initial flaws in the narrative, Tahir's prose and ability to trade between some very tough conflicts that challenge the characters is compelling, and builds up to what will be a much bigger conflict. That was what kept me reading even in places where I felt the development was thin or the character actions frustrated me. I saw where the narrative was going and though "Okay, this is going to end up in an epic place eventually and I want to see what happens." Elias and Laia are pawns and they eventually have to come to terms with moving out of their passive roles, even if it costs them in part for what they're aiming for. This book does show a clear arc of growth for both characters, and in the end, I thought it was great how Laia stepped up to the plate, while Elias defended what he knew to be right despite his fated path.
This book ends with a definite end to one part of a journey, while branching into another with a clear objective. I'm looking forward to seeing where Tahir takes the characters beyond this because her narration, thematic focus, and eye for conflict is compelling, though if I were to say constructively - I hope it's a little more immersive with the development of the characters, relationships and world depicted. It's a good story, and I give it credit where it's due, but I'll admit there were more than a few places where it stumbled and it took some patience to get through the rougher spots.
Overall score: 4/5 stars.