An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Some days I am good at writing book summaries. Some days I am not. Today is the second sort of day, so I am borrowing the book blurb from Goodreads.com:

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.

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An Ember in the Ashes was excellent. The characters were real and relate-able. I particularly emphasized with Laia, desperate to save her brother but terrified of basically everything. She doesn’t want to be part of the resistance, doesn’t want to become a spy, certainly doesn’t want to constantly withstand abuse from her owner, but her determination overcomes her fear. She is not magically a wonderfully talented fighter, she doesn’t take over the resistance – she is just a regular young woman doing what she has to do to save the only family she has left. She is brilliantly written.

Elias was fabulously written as well. He was a smidgeon more stereotypical for this sort of story – orphan, taken in by the tribesman (the token outsiders) but then brought back to the military and becomes their greatest fighter, all the while hating everything the military stands for. But then Elias is pulled into a game where he can win and take over not just the military but the entire empire, and change it for the better. His internal struggles over whether he should stay and fight or run, his feelings for his oldest friend and his feelings for the new, unusual slave-girl make great, believable reading.

This book had several twists and turns, and nothing turned out the way you would expect. It left me excited for the second book in the series, without a cliffhanger ending that just made me angry and left too many loose ends. And it never got bogged down my romance. I give it 5 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of high fantasy and books centered around slave resistance/revolt. The second book in the series is also available as well: A Torch Against the Night.

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