Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Review: An Ember in the Ashes ~ Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes
Sabaa Tahir
An Ember in the Ashes/Book 1
Young Adult/Fantasy
Razorbill/February 9, 2016

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

I find myself almost wishing I had waited to read this, at least until the second book is released. It was an incredible experience and with only one book, I'm addicted to the world Sabaa Tahir has created. I did in fact listen to the audio book, not once but twice! It was that good! Kudos goes to the narrators as well, Fiona Hardingham and Steve West.

From the beginning, I was drawn into the lives of Laia and Elias. They both live in different worlds. Laia is a scribe, one of the conquered, while Elias seems to live the life of privilege, the conqueror. But neither have much, if any, control over their lives. Laia is thrown out of her dismal home when her brother is arrested. She barely escapes the Empire's soldiers and seeks out the rebels, hoping they will help her rescue her brother. In exchange for the rebel's help, Laia must become a house slave to the Commandant of Blackthorne Academy. Laia is a teenager, seventeen, but her hard life has given her the determination to overcome horrendous odds in just surviving the Commandant.

The Academy is where the Martial Empire trains their soldiers. The training starts at age six. The children are brought to the academy and given training many adults would not survive. Sadly, many of the children do not survive the harsh environment of the Academy. The descriptions are brutal, conditions at the Academy are severe. The weak do not survive here. They are eliminated, mostly by the Commandant who takes sadistic pleasure in whipping the boys who disobey her rules. She killed a ten year old who tried to escape, was captured by the Masks and then punished by the Commandant. I absolutely hated her.

The Masks are the soldiers who have graduated from the Academy. They got their name from the masks they wear, which they are not allowed to remove. The soldiers received their masks while still in training and the masks slowing begin to "bond" to the soldiers' faces. The description is, disturbing, and I had the impression the masks are made out of some type of pliable metal. I don't remember if it was mentioned what exactly they are made of but they gradually attached the the face and head of each trainee until they become a part of the soldier.

The whole setting of the Academy is brilliantly developed from the grounds, the trainees' rooms, the kitchen and halls, and the Commandant's quarters. It felt like a real place with not only the physical description but the atmosphere. Everyone always ready to follow orders at a moments notice or be punished for the slightest infraction. This was not a happy place, but rather a prison camouflaged as a military academy where most of the inmates think they want to be there and are brainwashed into believing they are doing the right thing for the Empire.

The character of Laia is a magnificent heroine. She is terribly scared and out of her element when she leaves her home and searches out the rebels. You can feel her terror as she encounters the hostility of the rebels and later the soldiers and the Commandant. You can also feel her resolve to follow through on her mission in the face of the real fear she has for her life. I felt as if I was right there with Laia. The writing is extremely detailed not only the physical components but the emotional turmoil Laia and the other characters go through.

The secondary characters are well developed and fit like puzzle pieces into the story. There are the other soldiers, Elias' best friend Helene was a particular favorite of mine and will be featured more prominently in the second book. She is currently the only female cadet and worked her ass off to get as far as she has. She is confident in her abilities but holds dangerous secrets that could get her killed. I can not wait to learn more about Helene. There is also Marcus, the Commandant's protégé and Elias' enemy. Marcus is evil and has a sadistic streak that given time, will be on the same level as the Commandant's.

We also meet some of the rebels. Resistance fighters who have their own agenda and use Laia to get what they want. Then there is another favorite of mine - kitchen girl. She is a sweet, brave young girl who works in the kitchen at the academy and befriends Laia. Cook is also there and can be brisk and even rude but her heart is in the right place.

The story is told in alternating POV of Laia and Elias. It's interesting how closely their thoughts and feelings parallel each other. They have such different backgrounds and yet have similar moral codes. Laia is a young woman and a slave so you would think she is in the weaker position while Elias is a physically powerful young man, trained in warfare so he must be the more powerful of the two. When in fact, Elias wants desperately to run away from his responsibilities while Laia is embracing hers. Elias is afraid of what he will become if he stays and takes up his role as a Mask.

When I'm reading an incredibly good book, I get pictures in my head. Pictures of the characters and the setting. I'll also find my body tensing up and my heart will feel as if it's beating faster when the scene is reaching the point where I know something dreadful or shocking is about to happen. This book was like that. There are graphic fight scenes, tense situations, adventurous spying, daring escapes and the passion of friendships both new and old. I absolutely loved this book!

Rating: A+

An Ember in the Ashes Series ~

An Ember in the Ashes
A Torch Against the Night (August 30, 2016)
Untitled (Expected publication 2017)

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