We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.
For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir
Publishing Info: Razorbill, April 2015
Where Did We Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: 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.
I like to think of myself as a good sport when it comes to my willingness to read genres that I’m not too keen on. Be it in an effort to stretch my reading wings or going off a recommendation from a close friend, I will try and be open minded about a book even if I wouldn’t really pick it up on my own or of my own volition. This happens a lot of book club with YA fantasy fiction, and I will be the first to admit that I’ve found some pretty good books this way that I wouldn’t have normally read. But when it comes to “An Ember in the Ashes”, it HAD been on my list in spite of the genre, it just never came up in my reading rounds. So when it was the selection for the month, I went in apprehensive but hopeful. YA fantasy, sure, but based on Roman history! That’s something I could enjoy, right?
“An Ember in the Ashes” does have strengths that I did like about it. For one, as mentioned, the Roman influenced world was unique for me and fun to see, as I’ve had a fascination with Ancient Rome (specifically the Julio-Claudian Emperors) since college. I liked that Tahir took influence from the culture in terms of not only the way the characters were, but in the way that world was built. While it’s been tweaked to fit the story, there were definitely aspects of the society that felt familiar, and the society itself was definitely interesting enough that I wanted to know more about it. On top of that, the story itself was engaging and filled with enough conflict and stakes that I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I wanted to see what was going to happen to Elias and Laia, and wanted to know how their fates were going to tie together, as promised. We get two narratives within this story, of Laia and Elias, and of the two I liked Elias’s narrative more. One of the reasons for that is that I thought that his voice was more interesting to me as someone who is incredibly good at what he does, though he secretly despises it and plans to abandon it as soon as he can. The other reason, and the far more pressing one, is that while I liked Laia and was interested in what she was doing her ‘reluctant but willing rebel who has devoted everything to avenging and saving her family’ is a theme we have seen in YA for a very long time now, and it didn’t feel all that new or unique, nor did it stand out from the other narratives out there. Throw in some awfully cartoony/not terribly well fleshed out antagonists, and you have a story that has promise, but doesn’t quite land.
I thought that “An Ember in the Ashes” was an entertaining read, but I don’t think that I’m going to go on in the series. Should someone tell me that I should give it a chance, I will happily be a good sport and do so. But as it stands now, I am parting ways with Elias and Laia where we left them.
I…wasn’t a fan of this book. I’ll also admit that right out of the gate I wasn’t feeling super hopeful about this one, as I remember it coming out and then looking into it at the time and choosing to pass. It then blew up into a huge read of the year, and I still didn’t read it. I can’t remember now why I didn’t read it, but I’m guessing that some of the trusted reviewers I follow must have flagged it and I had enough other things on my plate (a perpetual non-problem!problem) to write it off as likely not for me. But, like Kate said, bookclub is super handy in that it pushes me to read books that I otherwise wouldn’t, for whatever reason. And as I said, this was a huge fantasy novel, so really, it’s good that I read it so I could form my own opinion.
Most of what I liked about the book, Kate already covered. Though, even there, I had some pretty big qualifiers to my enjoyment of most of them. First off, the world-building. I did enjoy the Roman aspects that were being used and the unique world that was built around it. However, having read a lot of YA fantasy, these elements also didn’t standout as breaking some huge mold. Roman society and influences are at the heart of a lot of second world fantasy. I did find it interesting, however, that the rebellion seemed to be stemming from a different cultural background. Irish, I would guess, based on the naming conventions. One of our booklcub members had a theory that the world here was essentially the Roman empire shrunk down to a more manageable size. So some of the nearby cultures could be representing other place in the world that Romans expanded out to, like Ireland. It’s an interesting theory, and one that I think would be super clever. However, this is never explicitly said in the book itself, and I’m not sure there’s enough to conclusively say that that was the purpose behind some of these choices. If it was, I wish the author had made it more clear, because it is a very interesting idea.
The other thing that stands out as notable about this book was the violence of it all. I think that this was one of the aspects of the story that made it stand-out when it was first published, that it went further than other YA fantasy. But this is also where I started having major problems with the book. Primarily, the violent, serious nature of the world that our characters are living in didn’t match up with the often frivolous and silly nature of their thoughts and priorities, especially with regards to their romances. In other words, the book was trying to walk an unnatural line. It wanted to be “Game of Thrones,” but still have “Twilight” level romances. This simply doesn’t work. “Game of Thrones” is known for having teen characters involved at the heart of the story. The difference here is that when presented with the dire and very serious nature of the world around them, their thoughts and actions appropriately reflect that.
Laia and Elias have grown up in a world where violence and the threat of violence is around every corner. Beyond this, sex is used as a weapon and prostitution is a fairly normal thing for soldiers to participate in. Yet, Laia and Elias don’t reflect this as characters. Instead, right next to rape threats and horrific deaths, we have two characters who read so PG as to be almost laughable. It also weirdly worships the purity of these two characters. Elias is not like other boys and while he is constantly admiring the beauty of the women around him, he’s never engaged in anything himself. They both talk about physical attraction and love in the same way that teenagers today would. But that doesn’t work in a world where they would have grown up past this type of purity quickly (if they ever had it in the first place). You just can’t convince me that a character whose family has been murdered and is a spy for an evil queen would be so caught up in this love square or whatever it was.
I also didn’t appreciate the repeated rape threats made to Laia and Elias’s near constant worry about rape happening to the women in his life. It felt like the topic was used to further darken the world but was never explored further on how it would shape the lives of these women. Attempted rape has its own horrific aftereffects and yet none of this is explored with Laia.
Perhaps if this book had been written for adults I would have appreciated it more. There were some strong bones with the world and the political nature of the story. Elias and Laia, if aged out of their teenage swooning, could have also been good characters. But as it stands, the book seems to be presenting a weird position where tons of violence and rape threats are a totally ok topic for teen readers, but consensual sex between characters would be too “adult” so Laia and Elias must weirdly fixate the belly flutters. It’s a strange position to take and I don’t think it fits well.
Kate’s Rating 6: An engaging read to be sure, though a lot of the themes and characterizations we’ve seen in this genre over and over again.
Serena’s Rating 5: Not for me. I don’t think it did enough to address some of the serious topics it throws around and the romance didn’t mesh with the world that was created.
Book Club Questions
- What did you think of the world building in this novel? Did you think that it took accurate aspects from Ancient Rome and applied them well?
- There are two narrative POVs within this book. Did you connect more with Laia’s storyline, or Elias’s storyline?
- This book is labeled as a YA fantasy, though some would argue that it doesn’t have as many fantasy elements as other fantasies do. What do you think of this genre classification?
- What are your opinions on the antagonists of this story, specifically Marcus and The Commandant?
- Do you think that the romance aspects of the book lined up with the world that the characters lived within? More specifically, can people still be fixated on potential romance or attraction when they are surrounded by darkness and horrors?
- This is the first in a four book series. Do you have predictions on where the plot is going to go? Do you think you’ll keep reading?
Find “An Ember in the Ashes” at your library using WorldCat!
Next Book Club Book: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens