I feel kinda bad about shitting on this book, in large part because so many people seemed to lurve it while I spent most of my time going “for real?” while I was reading it. Because, while the concept was interesting and I know Sabaa Tahir means well — ngl, I was genuinely moved to tears by some of Elias’ passages of tortured valor — it was just one of those books that is so far removed from the basic laws of reality and common sense that I could not at all suspend my disbelief to enjoy the entire novel.
Based very loosely on the Roman occupation of North Africa, An Ember In The Ashes tells the story of Laia, an impoverished but free Scholar (*cough*Egyptian*cough*) girl who lives with her grandparents and her beloved brother Darin. Their land is ruled over by Martials (this setting’s Roman analogue,) with their primary military academy of Blackcliff being located not far from where Laia lives. When Darin is arrested in a midnight raid that kills their grandparents, Laia flees to the arms of a Scholar Resistance movement that does not want her. She begs them for help freeing her brother, and they agree so long as she does something for them first: infiltrate Blackcliff as a supposedly illiterate slave girl to its sadistic Commandant and pass back vital information.
Meanwhile, Elias Veturius is eagerly awaiting his graduation from Blackcliff so he can finally cut and run from the Martial Empire that he hates. But when the ancient Augurs come knocking with news of a Trial to choose the next Emperor, he finds himself trapped, trying to head off a reign under the malevolent Farrar twins while navigating his complicated relationship with his best friend, their generation’s only female student, Helene Aquilla. When his path collides with Laia’s, they find themselves unlikely allies in a quest to overthrow the Empire.
This is a very cool concept marred by far too much ridiculousness. While I could overlook the claim that making a sling for Helene took over an hour (fifteen minutes tops, if you’re searching for straight sticks for some reason instead of using something more rudimentary) or that the second of three sparring sessions between an enraged Helene and Elias took over twenty minutes (seven minutes at most,) I totally lost it at the third trial, which made NO SENSE to anyone with half a brain. The correct answer would have been for Helene and Elias to immediately enter into single combat to defeat each other — and the terms are very clear, defeat not kill — and only a total idiot with no experience commanding soldiers would have failed to see that. I could overlook how annoying and insecure Laia was, and even how conveniently her skills and pain threshold conformed to whatever the plot required (samesies for Helene, honestly,) but the lack of any accuracy when it came to the professional soldiers’ alleged fighting, tactical or survival prowess, all in service to the plot points the author wanted to make, was absolutely enraging. The actions and responses of the Resistance also made no sense, and while I enjoyed Izzi and Cook, their presence given their skillsets made no sense either. Overall, one of those infuriating books which disrespects logic in service to conveniently overcoming plot obstacles.
I was also annoyed, in a different way, by the idea that the Scholars deserved their subjugation and enslavement because their leaders of generations past (whom I’m betting are the Augurs now dun dun DUN) trapped all the jinns but one in a fit of prideful rage. No peoples deserve to be treated as subhuman because of the behavior of some of their ancestors — every individual should be judged by their own actions and character. It’s far more realistic, and less skin-crawling, to just blame the Martial occupation on a sense of empire and greed. I’m hoping that the idea of the Scholars getting what they deserved is debunked in future books but I, for one, won’t be reading them.