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.
If the diluted blurb above piqued your interest, you’ll probably love this book because it’s so much MORE than this. The blurb from the back cover barely touches what the book is about, while leading you to believe that it will be just another YA book with shallow drama and exaggerated characters. I had heard so much hype about An Ember in the Ashes that I had to read it just so I could pick at any flaws, but was pleased to find that it was a strong story that I’ll proudly display on my favorites shelf and probably reread in the future.
The Laia and Elias were instantly likeable, with Helene shaping up to be a well-developed and formidable character as well. I found Laia to be immensely brave, while at the same time having realistic emotions and worries about her position at Blackcliff Military Academy. The reveals about her parentage and her imprisoned brother’s affiliations were fantastic and I never suspected the latter. Elias was equally strong of character and I found his chapters to be my favorite. Learning about Blackcliff, his history, and his relationships with Helene and the other students had a solidifying effect on the story as a whole and made everything more relatable. Helene and the other students at the academy were a mixture of amiable companions and basically abhorrent creatures. Helene was the strongest of these characters and I liked her overall based on her friendship with Elias and her drive to succeed, but she had moments where she was unreasonable or dramatic. Lastly, the Scholar rebels were a fairly forgettable lot, and I didn’t have a great deal of feelings for any of them except Keenan. I suspect there could be an interesting set of dual love triangles going on.
Interestingly, the society is based on a caste system, which isn’t based on jobs (which is how it sounds) but on a historic tribal relationship. The Scholars were the creators of the first empire, but got on bad terms with the jinns (mythical desert creatures), who allied with the Martials to destroy the Scholars in revenge. In the current setting of the story, the Martials are the ruling class, nobles, military, and wealthy merchants while the Scholars are largely uneducated and often enslaved to the Martials. The use of the more Middle-Eastern folkloric creatures is a welcome respite from the use of vampires, werewolves and other more European folklore. One of my favorite parts of the book was the living metal masks that the older Blackcliff students and full-fledged Masks wear. These add somewhat chilling and add to the air of fear associated with Martial law. I also found the map illustrations in the novel to be beautifully rendered and quite useful to reference locations.
An Ember in the Ashes is a solid 5 out of 5 stars book and I definitely see myself reading this again. This stunning cover will make a beautiful addition to my ever-growing book collection and I would recommend this to any fan of YA or fantasy books. There will be a second book, though the title and cover art have not yet been released, so keep a lookout for those announcements!