Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Synopsis: AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is a thought-provoking, heart-wrenching and pulse-pounding read. Set in a rich, high-fantasy world with echoes of ancient Rome, it tells the story of a slave fighting for her family and a young soldier fighting for his freedom.
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.
Review: An Ember in the Ashes is a compelling and enthralling story that will grab you with all of its oppressiveness, determination, brutality, rawness and just an ember of hope.
The synopsis starts with “Set in a terrifyingly brutal Rome-like world”, and this is exactly what you get! The world is terrifyingly brutal… it is a horrible, horrible world! With very little hope, and violence being an acceptable behaviour, An Ember in the Ashes is dark, gritty, raw and does not shy away from the cruelty and violence that is ingrained in this world.
Since the synopsis started with this fact, so will I. Brutality in the forms of violence and oppression is a huge aspect of the book, the one thing that dominates the storyline and it is done so in such a powerful and mesmerising way. The threat of violence is at every turn in this book from the Martial Empire, and they have left very little room for hope.
The soldiers at Blackcliff Military Academy are ripped from their childhood to become Masks, to enforce the law with brutal strength and terror. They are trained, they are broken and they are taught to follow every command without question. Their upbringing is horrendous, they are stripped of everything and it is only their survival instincts and ability to comply that will ensure they live long enough to become the Empire’s puppet. And outside of the Empire, the Scholars are treated like little more than vermin, they are enslaved, they are deprived and they run the risk that at any moment of being ripped from their family or executed for the slightest of indiscretion.
This is a ruthless world, and violence runs rife throughout the storyline. From execution to whippings, to torture, and even rape. I respected the fact that violent nature of this world was not shied away from, and that the risks of such brutality were a real and constant threat. Ingrained in this violent culture was also the social acceptance of rape, and although it may turn some people off, I felt the inclusion of the sexual assault aspect of this story was an important one. In a world such as this, where women (especially Scholar women) are treated like second-class citizens at best, slaves at worst, the threat of sexual assault rang true for the environment they were in. It would be a real risk, a real possibility, a real threat.
An Ember in the Ashes is told from the dual points of view of Laia and Elias. Laia is a Scholar who has lost everything, and Elias is a Mask in training, a soldier raised to do the Empires bidding without question. They are very different people, with very different upbringings, and both struggle with the demons that have been forced upon them because of The Empire.
A child-solider, a brutal killing machine, someone who has been raised to either kill or die, Elias has survived his training at Blackcliff Military Academy, however, they have not killed his free-will. He is not the mindless solider that the Empire has tried to create, and he does have a conscience. He struggles with what he has had to do in the past to survive and fears what he would have to do in the future under the Empire. And it is because of his integrity that he is determined to break the Empires hold on him and flee to a faraway land… until he chosen to partake in a brutal contest for the title of Martial Emperor. But it is not the thought of being Emperor that makes Elias stay, it the suggestion that he could win true freedom.
Laia is guilt-ridden over the fact that she didn’t do anything to stop the Empire taking her brother away. Arrested for treason and taken to be tortured or executed, Laia’s brother told her to run, and so she did, but now she is left with survivor’s guilt. Determined not to be afraid anymore, she finds the only people she can think of helping her save her brother – the Resistance. In exchange for their help, Laia must go undercover at Blackcliff as a slave. But not just any slave, she will be the personal slave to the ruthless, heartless and truly evil leader, The Commandant.
It is here that Elias and Laia meet, and although there was certainly an attraction between them, their relationship develops at a slow and natural pace. Although most students at Blackcliff would not look twice at a slave, Elias is different. He has compassion, he has empathy and he see’s something in Laia that she isn’t even sure she has. I adored the relationship between these two. Laia is fearful of Elais because he is Mask, horror and brutality in the flesh, and Elais wants to nothing more than for someone to see beyond his mask, to see him. There were moments of confusion, tenderness, fear and determination between these two, and I thought it was a great building of a relationship. But it wasn’t the blossoming relationship that I enjoyed most about this pairing; it was about what they brought out in each other, what they taught each other, and mostly, what they gave each other.
Another thing I really enjoyed about this book is that along the way both Laia and Elais make mistakes… some pretty big ones. But I am glad that they did. I felt that this helped develop the characters, along with the storyline. Laia made many mistakes along the way, but I enjoyed the fact that she was pretty clueless and scared, she was going on solely her desire to save her brother and that she had moments of doubt. For her to come into this story all kick-ass would have felt off for the world they live in and the life she has led. And Elais’ struggle with his conscience, and guilt over the acts he must commit, is heartbreaking. He feels everything he has been trained not to, he questions the commands he is given and the lifestyle the Empire forces upon everyone. He is great at what he does, but that is the very thing he despises about himself. Their inner-turmoil is palpable, the desire of these characters is heartfelt and what these characters must withstand to achieve their goal is truly shattering – of body and soul.
An Ember in the Ashes is currently a standalone, but I will be bitterly disappointed if there isn’t more of to come in what could be an epic series. At the book’s ending there is just not enough closure, plotlines are left unresolved and these characters are far from a happily ever after (if that is even possible).
The writing is engrossing and gorgeous, with fantastic world building even though this is a horrible world filled with despair and terrible people. Slow-paced with action in just the right places, this story is sure to suck you in with its depth and complexities. An Ember in the Ashes is also filled with some amazing characters in this story, from the Masks who suffer and cause suffering, to the despicable and truly heinous Commandant, to the Augurs who deliver prophecies that are riddled and confusing (and that may actually end in way that none of us like).
This book will bring out feelings of rage and hatred. You will fall deep into the Empire, suffer along the characters and cling on to any little ray of hope that you can find. An Ember in the Ashes is gripping and mesmerising, and it will leave you desperate for more.
Coming tomorrow: An Ember in the Ashes Discussion Review with Gina from Behind the Pages!