Time to review this one!
I’ve been looking for a good old-fashioned suck-me-in, life-or-death-stakes novel for a little while now. I’d heard good things about this one, from debut author Sabaa Tahir, and so off I went.
The summary, from Goodreads:
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.
So! This could have been really good, or really cliché.
Turns out, it was both.
1. It’s a page-turner This story fulfilled the number one requirement of all good stories: it kept me reading. At the end of every scene, of every chapter, I felt compelled to read on. I thought about it when I was at work, I forced myself to stay awake at night so I could keep reading. And I’m excited for the sequel.
2. The world-building It was fantastic. I don’t know very much about ancient Rome (ancient history has never interested me as much as recent-past history … maybe because it was so long ago the individuals who perpetrated it have become so obscure? not sure) but the world Sabaa Tahir built was detailed and vibrant and brutal and very, very real.
3. The writing It was well-written. A must for me.
4. Some characters I liked I liked Elias and his struggles very much. (Though towards the end he started to get kind of whiny. Man up, Elias.) I also thought Helene was fascinating and very much wish we could have gotten more of her instead of Laia (more on that later). I thought some of the fringe characters were interesting as well–but sadly, we didn’t get enough time with them. Which brings me to…
The less good:
1. Too much action, not enough character-building I understand that action is usually necessary in a page-turner (but not always! see French, Tana for examples) but at some points it was just action sequence after action sequence. At one point (minor spoiler) a whole bunch of supporting characters got killed and I didn’t care, because I couldn’t even tell them apart. If you’re going to want us to feel things for these characters, you must devote more screen time (page time?) to developing them.
2. The fantasy elements weren’t super well-explained At first it seemed like it was going to be a fantasy novel without any magic, which honestly I would have been fine with. Then the magic came in but it was so weird it was hard to tell if the characters were hallucinating or not. Hopefully it will be better explained in the sequel.
3. Laia It is difficult to give 5 stars to a book when you strongly dislike one of the two protagonists. I have no problem with the fact that Laia was weak and scared at the beginning–that’s fine, not everyone is Katniss straight off the bat. (I actually prefer it when they’re not.) But in addition to this, she was also not very bright. Her only redeeming quality seems to be that she’s beautiful. Which brings me to…
4. The “girls who are so beautiful they have no idea” trope Hate, hate, hate this, along with the idea that a female protagonist has to be beautiful to be worthwhile. Elias is interested in Laia the slave girl because she’s gorgeous and “has no idea”. His relationship with Helene is deeper than that, thankfully, but he can’t help but notice how beautiful she is every five minutes. In fact, everyone is interested in everyone else because of their looks. Dig deeper, writers, please.
So I give it 7/10 stars. Despite its flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am eagerly looking forward to getting my hands on the next one.
Have you read An Ember in the Ashes? What did you think?