What Happens When Ancient Rome Gets a Fantasy Makeover

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
★★★★★ — 98%

I’ve been all kinds of evil and have kept An Ember in the Ashes’ goodness to myself these past 82013 months, but it’s finally time to share it with you and I’m not mad. I’M NOT MAD!


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.

my thoughts

Alright. An Ember in the Ashes was something totally unlike any other YA fantasy I’ve ever read. It was extremely inventive, atmospheric, and touching. Sabaa’s words held power as well as beauty.

“Life is made of so many moments that mean nothing. Then one day, a single moment comes along to define every second that comes after. Such moments are tests of courage, of strength.”

Our story revolves around Laia, a Scholar girl desperate to save what’s left of her family, and Elias Veturius, a soldier. Elias was my favorite and I’m not even going to pretend. He’s a character that can’t be categorized (unless Awesome is a category—I’m open to it) and there’s so much conflict going on inside of him that it not only enriches his character but also the story itself. Everything gets very complex and very cool and I’m very obsessed. Also: JAWLINE.

Laia wasn’t so great. It wasn’t so much who she was that bothered me. She actually has a personality I wish was more common among YA heroines: she doesn’t flaunt her strength, and she doesn’t even have it at first. She’s normal, she’s human, she’s weak; she grows. My problem with her is that that growth doesn’t always feel natural. This pops up more in A Torch Against the Night, where it feels like we literally skip over some crucial character development, but there’s still enough of it here to bother me.

The development of every other character, though, was as good as it gets. And HELENE!! And the FRIENDSHIPS!!! And if I could have the third book now that would be great.

About the plot:

1) The story was more layered* than I ever could have thought.
2) There were also about 6 million conflicts that pulled at each character. Elias wasn’t the only one with a battle inside: each main character was at war with themselves while fighting man or nature outside. Or both. (This author likes to torture us can you tell?) It was insANE how much was going on at once.
3) I was stunned by every devious little plot twist (then again, I’m as oblivious as a blindfolded bat so that may have played a part…MAYBE).
4) The rude little book had me squirming and screaming and ripping my hair out (my family probably thinks I’m insane but it’s okay they already know the truth).
5) It was so fast-paced I had to stop and catch my breath once or twice.
6) My heart hurts.
7) My heart hurts.
8) PAIN.

*You know, like cake. I want cake.

If I had to pick one thing Sabaa did the best, though, it would be writing. There was not one amateurish mistake, not one fumbling dialogue, not one sentence that didn’t flow right. Her tone was unique and her storytelling was extraordinarily skillful; her descriptions fit perfectly with the world she had created. Scenes were written with an artful balance of utility and rich description.

Tahir’s skill in world-building, as well, was magnificent. With the help of the Gladiator soundtrack, her world was revealed slowly, fluidly, and effortlessly. The Martial Empire was a world completely different than any I had set foot in before and I wanted to stay in it. There were some aspects of the world that I found cheap, but those flaws were minor and I could ignore them.

Now read it and cry with me.

dirty talk

Language: Characters swear. (D—n, h—l, b—t—d)

Violence: Oh gee, the characters fight too. Sometimes they die. We’re all very sad. Slaves are beaten. That we really don’t like.

Sensuality: We’ve got innuendo my friends. And kissing. And some boys with disgusting unwanted advances that really just need to buzz off.

Substances: Adults drink at receptions.  Hey, at least it’s legal.