Review: An Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Because Goodreads does not allow half-stars, my official rating of a 3.5/5-stars has been bumped up to 4* solely on the basis that I would, in fact, read the next book to see what happens next.

I make that little disclaimer above because this is where effectually the potential raging and ranting is about to begin. I know a lot of people like this book, so I’m probably going to say some things that will piss a lot of people off. Just…caveat emptor.

Let me start by not even talking about the book; I want to talk about the hype. Gingerreadslainey over on Youtube held a fantastic discussion video on overhyped pre-releases (www.youtube.com/watch?v=61izCx_ZeeM) and rightfully included AN EMBER IN THE ASHES into that discussion. This book has been all about the hype; I think I can recall hearing about it at least 6 months prior to its release date, at minimum. And then it was EVERYWHERE.

I am not usually one to subscribe to hype, but the “hype engine” — as I have come to call it — alongside the marketing/blurbs for the novel caught my eye and interest.

Here’s what I was promised in a nutshell: “A standalone YA-fantasy based on/inspired by Ancient Rome.”

I got neither a standalone YA-fantasy, nor something that feels like it was based on or inspired by Ancient Rome. I’m sure I’ll garner argument on the latter point, but let me just say plainly that simply appropriating Roman terms (“centurion”), Roman gentes (“Veturia”, et al.) and praenomenia (“Caius”, “Marcus”, et al.) does not mean your fantasy is either based on or inspired by Ancient Rome. That’s like saying The Hunger Games is based on Ancient Rome. Nor does creating a highly militant faction/world imply inspiration from Ancient Rome. Yes, Imperial Rome was a massive military power, but they were also known for assimilating culture they conquered; I’m sure even the craziest of emperors (see Nero and Caligula) realized that such a tactic is the easiest way to not only conquer a people, but maintain an empire. So the idea that “the military” conquered “the scholars”? Very against the idea of Ancient Rome, who were always trying to model themselves upon the Hellenic/Hellenistic Greek culture — especially the Athenians — who were notable thespians.

So, sure, continue to tell me this is somehow inspired by Ancient Rome. Go ahead and put “centurion” in the same sentence as “fatigues” and have your military commander where “mirror-bright boots” and “buttons.”

Very Roman, obviously.

My Classicist gripes aside, this book suffers from several other problems I couldn’t ignore.

Laia is not only a useless protagonist who serves to further Elias’ own personal growth/journey, but her POV chapters were far less interesting than her male counterpart’s. Elias’ chapters not only function more within what I can assume is the overarching Plot of this series, but demonstrate more character growth/actually potentially interesting characters, and are just overall more entertaining. Also, Helene is a far more dynamic and compelling female character than Laia has any hope of being — literally this (unfortunately delegated to) side character is a goddess who’s wonderfully complex and deserves POV chapters.

Because of the aforementioned problem and the chapters wasted in Laia’s POV, the entire story/Plot/worldbuilding/characterization — literally everything about this story is stretched thin. There’s no vertical development for any character save Elias (and maybe Helene) and the entire novel feels shallow as a result.

I find this disappointing not only because of the hype machine for this novel, but for what I feel is wasted potential. There are kernels of good things in here, but it’s not delivered upon. In splitting herself with the POV’s, Tahir didn’t really commit to either one of their stories enough. Actually, overall I just think Tahir didn’t truly commit to any aspect of this novel — from its protagonists, antagonists, plot, world building…everything felt shallow and underdeveloped.

Will I read the next book? Yes — in the same way I watched all of the second season of True Detective despite being filled with more and more crushing disappointment week and week. I’m a masochist and, so, I will finish. I do so with the barest glimmer of hope that the second novel (a) kills of Laia and/or her brother so we don’t waste anymore time with her POV; (b) gives me Helene POV chapters; (c) provides the depth its predecessor lacks.

PS. Why anybody ever thought of marketing this as a standalone…no, I won’t even go there. This is clearly NOT a standalone and marketing it as such was not only misleading, it was effectually a lie. Had things turned out differently in the finale a la Elias and Laia’s fates then, sure, it could be a standalone — a pretty gutsy standalone at that. But it’s obviously a setup for a series.

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