Cover of An Ember in the Ashes: A large gray wall with title text and a roman-looking town above

About the Book

Title: An Ember in the Ashes (An Ember in the Ashes #1)
Published: 2015

Cover Story: Silver and Gold
BFF Charm: Platinum Edition
Talky Talk: Dystopian Delight
Bonus Factors: Classic History, Jinn
Relationship Status: Where Do You Think You’re Going?

Cover Story: Silver and Gold

Totally neutral on this cover: I like that it conveys certain aspects of the story (walled fortress, desert) and is gender-neutral, but it doesn’t speak to me, either.  On first glance, it looks like conventional fantasy, and if I hadn’t heard a lot of buzz, I might not have been as interested as I was.

The Deal:

Laia’s whole family has been killed by the Empire, except for her and her brother. But Darin has been arrested by the Empire, and she must find him. To do so, she agrees to pose as a spy on a doomed mission: to help rebels overtake the Empire.

Laia has no idea what she’s doing, only that she’s being sent to serve a ruthless and brilliant mistress who doesn’t hesitate to kill, maim, or otherwise dispose of displeasing servants. When she gets to Blackcliff, she meets Elias, the Commandant’s son, who is as much of a slave as she is, in his own way. He wants nothing more than to be free of his military training, and she just wants to live to save her brother. But the Empire takes no prisoners, and betrayal is tantamount to death.

With jinn, ghuls, and mysterious psychic Augurs impacting their fates, Laia and Elias both struggle to survive their intertwined destinies.

BFF Charm: Platinum Edition

BFF platinum charm

Laia is a fantastic character. She could have just been a collection of dystopian tropes: loyal to her family, meek but finds fire in herself, competent under pressure. Instead, Sabaa Tahir has written a young woman whose personality rings true. Laia never seems like a Mary Sue, and that may be because she’s not so-smart-she’s-prescient, or because she also has to suffer some very hefty consequences – but her bravery and loyalty makes her the sort of friend material you would want in a dystopian revolution.

Swoonworthy Scale: 7

There’s kind of a love square going on here, but it’s not the focus of the novel. However, there are some seriously subtle but sexy scenes that are sure to relieve some of the tension. Laia is intrigued by the sexy redheaded rebel Keenan, but has physical chemistry with Elias. Elias returns her attraction, but his best friend Helene is in love with him, and that attraction could mean the difference between surviving his training or dying prematurely.

Talky Talk: Dystopian Delight

I’ll be honest: I was afraid this book was going to be a collection of the same dystopian tropes we’ve seen since Hunger Games became popular. Luckily, that’s not the case here, and this book is all the stronger for it. While it started out similar to many other fight-the-Empire novels, Tahir’s writing carries it. By the time I was 20% into the book, I could not put it down. You guys, I went to a concert and read it on my phone’s Kindle app (while drinking a beer, natch) while I waited for the show to start.

It does have some of the usual suspects: factions of people named after what they do or how they appear, for example. The world building is good, but it does take awhile for the story to really rev up. However, the Masks (a faction), in particular, are deliciously creepy. One thing I really loved about the novel is that Tahir is not afraid to let her characters suffer real and permanent pain, which, in my opinion, puts it on par with Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series and Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Trilogy.

Bonus Factor: Classic History

The Roman coliseum lit up at dusk

Remember how, two seconds ago, I mentioned The Queen’s Thief and The Winner’s Curse series? Like those books, this world is built on a Greco-Roman/Byzantine power structure. I’m a huge fan of this sort of world-building, and Tahir does it well. Unlike the aforementioned examples, it’s not explored to the same extent, but it does flavor the political intrigue.

Bonus Factor: Jinn

Genie pointing from the cartoon Aladdin

Jinn! It seems like I’ve read three separate books with jinn recently, and Ember has its own take on the mythology. While it’s part of the fantasy setting, the high-stakes, real-world consequences make the mythology easier to accept (especially because some of the characters doubt the existence of jinn themselves).

Relationship Status: Where Do You Think You’re Going?

Here’s the deal, you guys: this is currently a standalone novel, although Sabaa Tahir has said she has her characters’ whole lives planned out and could go on forever. So: there might be a sequel? (spoiler alert from later: there is!) If it gets picked up? (Frankly, the publishers would be crazy not to see this story out to the most epic conclusion.) There needs to be a sequel, because while I thought this novel was a real tour de force, ending it where it left off was not satisfying. I’m down with mysterious or sad endings, but this book deserves at least one more installment. It’s clear that those characters’ journeys are not over. So I say WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING?! with all the love in the world: I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. And if I knew there was a sequel in the works, I could rest easier and love this book even more. Dammit.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received a free review copy from Razorbill. I received neither money nor a pet unicorn for writing this review, despite how hard I wished for one.  An Ember in the Ashes is available now.