An Ember in the Ashes

Brutal. That word sums up Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes better than a long blog post ever could. Is that going to stop me from giving you more words? No, but be prepared. This book is no happy-go-lucky stroll through a meadow. It’s dark, savage, and, at times, difficult to read.

An Ember in the Ashes–the first book in the series–is loosely based on ancient Rome, but it’s also extremely relevant to the sometimes terrifying world we live in today. When you read it, I’m confident you’ll see the parallels.

Laia lives under the thumb of the Martial Empire. Born a Scholar, Laia and her family are treated as less than human. They live in constant fear of the Masks, deadly soldiers who seek out and eliminate those who would defy the Empire.

One night, the Empire’s minions come for Laia’s brother. A vicious Mask kills Laia’s grandparents and takes her brother prisoner. Laia’s only salvation is running and hiding in the city’s catacombs. It is here that she meets up with the Resistance.

These rebels seek to end the Empire’s reign of terror, and Laia hopes that they will help to free her brother. They agree, but Laia must do something for them first–something that could put her life in more peril than ever. She must become a spy and live as the Commandant’s slave at the Blackcliff Academy, the training ground for Masks.

Elias is in his final year of Mask training. He is one step away from becoming one of the Empire’s most savage weapons…and he wants no part of it. He can’t stand everything he’s forced to do, and he hates the brutality that surrounds him. Elias has plans to desert, but those plans are put on hold when he learns that he’s meant to go along a different path, one that could lead to the freedom he’s wanted for so long. Freedom from both the Empire and his mother, the cruel Commandant of Blackcliff.

As Laia looks for a way to save her brother, Elias is attempting to find his own way to escape his destiny. The two young people meet and are immediately drawn to each other, even though they appear to be at odds. They may seem to be working at cross-purposes, but they do not yet realize just how similar their goals are.

Both Laia and Elias, in their own way, seek to thwart the Empire, and, in the end, they may just have to join forces to realize their desires…and save their own lives.


There is nothing light-hearted about An Ember in the Ashes, but I loved it just the same. It is an uncomfortable, nightmarish read, but it definitely makes a reader think. It made me reflect on the rise and fall of empires throughout history, rebellions in both reality and fiction, and what it takes to overthrow what seems to be an all-powerful regime. (Pretty easy to see how this connects to what’s happening right now, yes?)

I would recommend An Ember in the Ashes to young adult and adult audiences. In my opinion, some of the imagery is simply too brutal for younger readers. The somewhat lackadaisical reactions to rape and torture, for example, make this book (and probably the others in the series) more suited to mature readers.

Speaking of the rest of the series, book two, A Torch Against the Night, is already out. From what I understand, there will be a third book and maybe a fourth book, but I don’t know titles or release dates yet.

To learn more about An Ember in the Ashes and Sabaa Tahir, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You may also want to take a look at the completely unspoilery book trailer below.

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