genre: young adult fantasy
For Laia, life under Empire rule is a bleak existence. As a scholar, her people are downtrodden and depraved, a class squashed under the foot of the Martials, who rule her part of the country with an iron fist. When her brother is arrested for treason and Laia is left truly alone, she turns to the only entity she thinks might help: the Rebellion. What they ask of her, though, is a price almost too steep to pay: to spy at the Martial military academy, where the most brutal soldiers in the Empire are trained from childhood to kill and destroy. It is this school where Elias has learned how to become a weapon, he is the most skilled student among hundreds of warriors. In his heart, however, what he truly wants is to be free from the rigidity and darkness of the life that has been forced upon him.
Seeped with Roman undertones, An Ember in the Ashes is a fast-paced and wickedly addictive story of personal freedom and responsibility. With characters and situations that are both violent and troubling, Laia and Elias have choices to make that will determine the course of the history. There are so many things about this story to appreciate. I shall make a list:
*Laia's arc as a character is strong - she's not immediately a heroine, she's got fear and makes mistakes
*Elias is beautifully complicated as well, he knows what he wants, he's amazingly capable but isn't so perfect that he isn't uncertain often and makes his own poor choices with good intentions
*the female friendship thread is lovely and felt authentic, all the secondary female characters were intriguing, with some questions left unanswered in a way that makes you want the next book NOW
*the romantic relationships are complicated and multi-dimensional. Sometimes emotions felt a little flippy-floppy, but I also know that it's hard not to love the one you're with so it didn't really bother me too much, I thought it was well-thought out and kept me guessing more than I usually do with this kind of story
*the all-knowing holy men and the fantastical creatures that sneak their dark selves into the plot - this fantasy element was woven just clever enough to not make the fantasy feel thick, just intriguing
*the plot moved really quickly for me and there were plenty of unforeseen twists, which I appreciated and as much I loved the plot, I loved the introspection of our characters, and there is a lot of it. Vaguely repetitive, maybe, but knowing how they were feeling all the time, their dread and horror, their snippets of joy and most especially, their guilt and pain and staunch desire to just stay true to their most honest and merciful selves (even if they don't always succeed), THAT I really loved learning about
*also, I cannot recommend the audio enough - it's read by two of my most FAVORITE narrators, Fiona Hardingham and Steve West (they also read Scorpio Races together and she read A Corner of White). It has been such a long time since I COULD NOT STOP listening at the end of an audio book, I walked around with a phone to my ear all afternoon to finish. Really well done performance
And so, yes, while it is not actually perfect (there are always a few little annoying things) this one had HEART even with all the violence (yes! lots of violence! and some swears, maybe). The next book is set up well at the end so you know where you're going but no idea how you'll get there and I love a strong female character so much. I am gushing, I know. So annoying. But for pure imagination and keeping my interest so well, this one deserves its accolades.