Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

A Mask and a Scholar slave. 

Both trapped in the status that they are born in. Both enslaved. Both can never escape.

An Ember in the Ashes

I am…slightly put-out.

Considering the huge amount of hype this book got and the movie deal it received before official publication, I expected more.

As it were, I wasn’t blown away. I liked the book and there were a lot of things I thought the author did well, but some I wanted more of.

Warning: If you have not read it yet, there will be spoilers.

Tahir created a complex and brutal world. The threat of death was heavy throughout the book and it added a wonderful edge of tension every time you turned the page. All of your emotions get ratcheted up at least 10 times through Laia and Elias’s terror and paranoia. And it was all very, very good.


I felt that the world-building was lacking. It was always about one sliver of the realm: the rapes, the deaths, the abuse. But I wanted to see the entirety of Tahir’s world. For example, I didn’t think the descriptions of the Quarter were sufficient enough. I like visual things and to be left without a clear image of what the Quarter looked like and how people gathered there was underwhelming.

In general, I quite liked the characters. They are written in a way that I can only describe them as “beautifully tortured”.

I really enjoyed reading about Laia’s character arc and growth. She started off as a coward and emerged as someone who could hold her own. I was happy that this change wasn’t abrupt and that she steadily got braver. Instead of thinking about all of the things she could/couldn’t do and the things she wish she could’ve done, she trusted herself to find courage inside her heart.

Unfortunately, I did not like how passive she is. Most of the time, she didn’t do much which was most evident in her escape at the end of the book, since every aspect of her plan relied on everyone else doing stuff for her. I like characters who take charge. I understand that with her being a slave, she’s in a position without power but she should still do things for herself, by herself.

There was also a lot of telling rather than showing in what happens in the stories and the characters. Laia kept telling us that she was a coward and how ashamed she was. And it got repetitive. It would have been a lot more effective if it could have been described instead of repeatedly hammering it home. Elias also kept telling us how cruel his world was. There was no need–the scenes showcasing the Masks’ brutality were perfect without the added commentary.

The turmoil inside Elias was fascinating to read. A plethora of self-doubt and self-loathing for who he was. Because even if he cut all ties to his family, his mother’s blood still flowed inside of him.

There is so much strength in Elias. It takes a lot of courage to stand up for something that you believe in and he does it not through his actions but through his spirit and soul.

The dual POVs worked. Very well. Laia and Elias have distinct voices. And yet both share similar qualities such as loss of self. Their families are an important motivating factors in the choices that they make.

The central question that tied the two characters together was “How can you reconcile the image of the person who you desperately want to be and the person who you fear you truly are?”

I was intrigued by Helene. She was such a strong female character (and not just because she was a Mask). She was steadfast and unshakable but underneath that veneer was someone who was afraid, selfless and lonely. Her character spoke of a quiet solidarity, perhaps not by choice, but as a way to protect those she loved.

The biggest drawback to this book was the romance. The romance where I felt absolutely nothing for the characters as couples which was a bit strange for me since I am very easily swoon-able. I wasn’t rooting for any of the potential couples because it was…confusing. You get a very messed-up love…square? No. It’s more of a love tangle. With a billion knots with no hope of untangling them. Let us break it down:

Laia likes Elias and Keenan. I accept that. Helene likes Elias. Also acceptable. Elias likes Laia and likes Helene but he’s not sure if he like-likes Helene.

This is where it gets confusing.

Does he like Helene? Or is he just repressing himself because he doesn’t want their friendship to get destroyed if he tries to start a relationship with her? But he still has feelings for her. It just…I can’t explain it. It got too messy and not in a particularly satisfying way.

At times, the romance flowed but for the most part, it stuttered and was put on standstill with no sign of resolution. The romantic relationships weren’t fleshed out enough.

The friendship between Helene and Elias was developed fantastically. I could tell how strong their friendship was and how equally protective they were of each other. Sure, it had its ups and downs but Helene remained fiercely loyal to Elias throughout the entire book. As a side note, I am completely terrified of what will happen to that friendship in the second book because noooo, they can’t be enemies!

I’m not sure if it was a typo or an inconsistency but I thought the Augurs had red eyes. Near the end of the book, Cain had black eyes. I literally shouted “WHAT?” when I came to that part.

And maybe I’m nitpicking here, but why on earth did Elias “toss” a dagger to Laia? IT’S DANGEROUS. WHO DOES THAT? What made you think that she could catch it on the right end of the dagger? Geez, Elias.

However, I adored the plot. Boy, all of the events were seamlessly woven and was overall amazing.

THE TRIALS. They were intense. They targeted all of the qualities of a “good” Emperor and they did it in a psychological, mental and physical way. It exposed weaknesses and forced the Aspirants to face their fears and every doubt that they ever had.

The plot is fast-paced and full of unanswered questions, mystery, magic and debunked myths. It was one of the most exciting books I’ve read recently because of the wonderfully written plot.

Other than the sometimes problematic story-telling and questionable romance, An Ember in the Ashes was still an engaging read. I will most definitely be reading the sequel. How could I not after that ending?


2 thoughts on “Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

  1. I completely agree with what you’ve said here 100% Hilary. I felt that the romance was extremely overcomplicated. It could have been so much better if it was simply a love triangle (Helene / Elias / Laia) than a love square with Keenan added into it. And the way rape was used to progress the story was very unsettling – I agree. Thanks for sharing and, as always, fabulous review! ❤


    1. I read your review Zoe and you were absolutely right about so many things about this book. Thankfully, I’m not the black sheep. Thank you for commenting!!


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