I WILL TELL YOU THE SAME THING I TELL EVERY SLAVE.
THE RESISTANCE HAS TRIED TO PENETRATE THIS SCHOOL COUNTLESS TIMES. I HAVE DISCOVERED IT EVERY TIME.
IF YOU ARE WORKING WITH THE RESISTANCE, IF YOU CONTACT THEM, IF YOU THINK OF CONTACTING THEM, I WILL KNOW
AND I WILL DESTROY YOU.
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.
Laia's people value learning and culture but they have been enslaved by the Martials. Laia lost her parents and older sister years ago to the Resistance. She and her older brother Darrin were raised by her grandparents until the fateful day that Martials attack, killing her grandparents and capturing Darrin who tells Laia to run. Laia escapes but is filled with overwhelming guilt and the feeling that she should have fought to help save her brother. Her plan is to find the Resistance and ask them to help save her brother's life. They reluctantly agree to help her if she goes undercover as a slave at Blackcliff, the military academy that trains the Empire's Masks, lethal soldiers like the one that attacked her family. She becomes a slave to the deadly Commandant, a woman who routinely tortures her slaves and always finds the spies that the Resistance tries to plant. Laia is desperate to save her brother but she finds herself in over her head.
Elias Veturius is about to graduate from Blackcliff but he has secret plans that don't involve serving the Empire as a Mask. He is the best soldier at the school and he also happens to have an unfortunate connection to the evil Commandant. When he meets Laia, he feels sorry for her but he has serious problems of his own as the Empire prepares to choose a new Emperor.
My first impression of An Ember in the Ashes is that it was a very dark book. There is unrelenting violence and brutality. From the opening pages with the attack on Laia's family to the fate that awaits a young student at the academy who tried to desert and the Commandant's treatment of her slaves there is nothing but bloodshed. The Martials seem to revel in it. Even their methods of choosing a new leader are barbaric. At times, it became too much for me and I had to put the book down and pick up something else to give myself a break from the darkness.
What kept me reading was my desire to find out what happened to Elias and Laia. I liked Elias's character. He is conflicted between his duty and his desire for escape. He is the heir to House Veturia and he doesn't want to let them down. Nor does he want to betray his friends, especially Helene, the school's only female warrior and someone he is starting to have feelings for. Elias is strong physically and he also has a good moral character despite the world he is part of. Laia is by contrast an initially weak person. She comes across as frail though she is determined to save her brother. She relies solely on the strength of others and almost seems to have a mental breakdown. At first I didn't like her that much because I've become used to stronger female protagonists like Katniss Everdeen or Tris Pryor and instead Laia is portrayed as a victim for much of the book. Although I was not a fan of Laia at the beginning I think she is a more honest portrayal of how an ordinary teen would react in that situation. Fortunately as the book goes on she begins to find her own inner strength and stop relying on others to save her.
The main villain doesn't have much depth but she definitely has some secrets that make me curious to find out more about her and her motivations and what her endgame is. There are also supernatural creatures woven into the story. Laia believed that jinns and efrits were fictitious beings but found out that they actually exist. There are also augurs with supernatural abilities (they can't die and they can read minds and see the future). The book combines elements of Ancient Rome and Middle Eastern mythology. I thought the Martials were similar to the Spartans and the Scholars were like the Athenians.
Overall I thought this was a good YA fantasy debut. There is an interesting (if violent) setting and good character development though I would have liked more depth for the villain. There is also plenty of action and suspenseful moments. I would have liked it if there wasn't so much romantic attraction between the characters. Elias and Laia are attracted to each other but Elias is also attracted to Helene who has feelings for him. Laia also finds herself drawn to Keenan, a member of the Resistance. Fortunately for all the romantic attraction there isn't that much angst or time devoted to romance because the characters are too busy trying to survive. I hope things resolve in the next book though a sequel is yet to be announced. I think fans of YA fantasy novels like Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes or The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski will like An Ember in the Ashes.
Note: I received an ARC for review purposes courtesy of Amazon Vine