#stayinspired, reviews, writing

An Ember in the Ashes: Review

Okay…wow. Just wow. That’s how I have to start out the review for An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. After the disappointment of Redemptor, this book definitely delivered a thrilling, immersive experience with at least two characters I loved. Ironically, Ember did not provide the same refreshing cultural introduction that the Raybearer series had, even if its plot was much better. To keep the review sane, I will structure it around how An Ember in the Ashes performed on four of writing’s most critical pillars: Characters, Plot, Worldbuilding, and Themes.

Plot. Starting with the best, right? I admire Sabaa Tahir’s plot in this book. The first scene hooked me. Though I was more interested in Laia than Elias, the journey of saving her brother–a selfless act, making Laia all the more admirable in light of her flaw of running away–kept me reading, and so did Elias’s humanity in the midst of Blackcliff’s cruelty. The plot was very tied to the characters’ development, so it never felt forced or convoluted. Things happened when they needed to happen. Even though the complex history of the Resistance, Empire, Scholars, Tribesmen, and mythical creatures came into the story, it never felt too complicated to follow. I can’t think of a single fault with the plot, except that several times it did seem a little “plot device-y,” like when Laia’s scream stops Helene and Elias’s kiss or she sabotages Blackcliff just in time to save Elias.

Worldbuilding. Just like the plot, the worldbuilding was engaging. If the plot is 4/5 and characters 3.5/5, then I’ll give the worldbuilding a 3.75/5. Why so? Well, the worldbuilding is filled with intriguing realities–like the fact that the Resistance is divided against itself, Mazen’s not all good, there aren’t “the good guys” and “the bad guys,” and the catacombs and structure of the city is beautiful. What I’m disappointed in is the relative “meh” factor: besides the jinn and a few sandy descriptions, the Tribesmen are pretty bland. There’s nothing terribly special about the Moon Festival. The Roman-inspired Empire is the most detailed and well thought out facet of the story, but how well it merges with the mythical and intercultural aspect of the book remains to be seen. But Laia’s background, the story’s herbs, and the school structure is real enough to keep readers hanging by a string.

Characters. Ah, characters. My heart is still roiling over the new people I’ve been introduced to, which is probably good. Tahir’s characters are realistic…almost to a fault. By far my favorite example is Laia’s dynamic realism. She is a true “strong female character” without being the cardboard Mary Sue everyone expects. In the beginning, she fails. She shows fear. And who wouldn’t? But the guilt and desperation brought on by her brother’s fate turns her into a selfless and brave character, who accepts people and experiences she never would have. Her character arc is perfect; a true 10/10.
Elias is almost as good. Though he does a great job clinging to his integrity in a challenging environment, and deserves to be Emperor, I had less respect for him. Maybe it was because of his (realistic) problems with girls, but having to watch his scenes with Helene was enough to make me eyesore. Helene almost made me stop reading. She was the brattiest, most annoying character I had to suffer through, and watching Elias’s fierce loyalty to a character as one-dimensional as her was really annoying. My greatest complaint with Helene was her dull heart. She has a one track mind, seeking the Empire’s every wish. If Elias hadn’t whined, begged, and belittled her, she would never develop compassion or pity others. As it stands, the little open mindedness Helene has is at risk of being due to her simplike flattery for Elias instead of any real development. Keenan, to a lesser degree, displays a frustrating lack of clear motives. Since we see so much of him, shouldn’t we have at least an idea of what his goals are?

Themes. I think the biggest theme was guilt and how you choose to respond to it. Will you wallow, letting guilt consume your life, or allow it to be motivation for you to build your boundaries and not cross them next time? It was a great message, and well woven into the story in both Laia and Elias’s arcs. After all, the only way we humans understand our boundaries and make them stronger is gaining wisdom through correction and adverse experiences. Before you build your fences, you have to know what your boundaries are. You have to experience the bad before you’re ready to put up the fence against it. In my opinion, I would have preferred more exposition on this theme and a more philosophical tone overall, but that’s just my preference. Redemptor and Raybearer have this tone; An Ember in the Ashes does not, and that’s just a slight genre difference.

If you’re looking for an enthralling, immersive read, I would recommend An Ember in the Ashes. Due to my life feeling too similar to it (minus the Roman Empire), I will not be reading the rest of the series’ books yet, but I look forward to a return to this world–and hopefully incorporating a grain of it in my own stories.

Until next time,


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