Sunday, 30 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 69: "An Ember in the Ashes" by Sabaa Tahir

Page coun: 464 pages
Audio book length:
Rating: 3.5 stars

Spoiler warning! Some spoilers for the early parts of the book in this review (although some of it is already spoiled in the book's blurb). 

We're back to me reviewing books I read a month ago, so Goodreads will have to help me out here:

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those that 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 realise that their destinies are intertwined - and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself. 

I read a lot of YA fantasy (and the occasional sci-fi) and after a while, the tropes start to feel a bit repetitive and a lot of the stories feel rather samey. This book reminded me somewhat of Marie Rutkoski's The Winners trilogy, Pierce Brown's Red Rising trilogy, with some elements from Mary E. Pearson's The Remnant Chronicles (which reminds me, I have yet to track down and read the final book in that series). You've got the brutal empire, modelled on ancient Rome. You have some sort of oppressed underclass, possibly enslaved. You've got the various neighbouring peoples, who have different and seemingly barbarian customs. Not all the evil ruling class are necessarily evil (where would be the fun in that) and most of the oppressed underclasses are too afraid to mount any sort of rebellion, because they'd surely be defeated and soundly crushed. Yet of course there are rebels, because in such a situation, there will always be people who try to fight.

Laia is quite happy keeping her head down and not making a fuss, until soldiers come to their house one night, ready to arrest her brother for treason. They brutally cut down her grandparents and seize her brother, while Laia, terrified runs away. She's deeply ashamed of herself and rather than considering that she would most likely be dead too (probably after the various soldiers had their way with her), she is determined to redeem herself by getting her brother out of prison. Laia's parents were legendary rebels, who were betrayed by someone close to them and captured by the Empire, along with Laia's eldest sister. Her mother was especially ruthless in her fight against the oppressing Empire, known as the Lioness. Laia feels about as far from her mother as its possible to be.

She nonetheless manages to track down the rebels (partially through blind luck) and negotiates a deal with them. She will pose as a slave and work for the Commander of Blackcliff military academy, where they train the most elite soldiers of the Empire. As the Commander is known to be heartless, vicious and prone to maiming or disfiguring her slaves, if they survive for very long in her service at all, it's a very dangerous mission. Laia's terrified, but feels she must do anything and everything to ensure the rebels get her brother out of prison.

At Blackcliff, she discovers that all the rumours about the Commander are true, and that the cold and cruel woman doesn't seem to have affection for anyone, not even her own son, Elias Veturius. He is seemingly the most promising soldier of the current graduating class, but no one, not even his best friend, Helene Aquilla, knows that he's planning on running away after the graduation ceremony, determined to reject the Empire and all its teachings.. Running away would be considered treasonous, and if he's caught, he would be executed.

Before he gets a chance to escape, Elias is approached by one of the Augurs, ancient, immortal, pretty much omniscient beings that tell him that if he stays at Blackcliff and takes part in the upcoming trials, he will finally have a true chance at freedom and of changing the course of the Empire forever. Apparently the Augurs have seen that he is a key figure in the future, no matter what the outcome is, and if he runs away, he will ruin everything.

So Elias stays at Blackcliff after graduation, and is selected to take part in the trials to select the new Emperor - along with his best friend Helene, along with two of the more brutal aspirants of their year. Because he stays, he also meets and starts interacting with Laia, his mother's new slave. They have a strange connection, but she's a slave and he's part of the Empire that enslaved her, so what future could they possibly have?

This book has garnered a lot of praise, and been nominated for a ton of literary YA awards. I'd heard a lot about it, but must admit I wasn't really all that engrossed for the first half of the book or so. Laia is just so timid, naive and scared all the time. While that's perfectly natural, it isn't always that much fun to read about. Elias is full of self-loathing and resents being taken from the tribespeople he spent his early childhood with to be a favoured and wealthy son of the Empire and taken to Blackcliff to train. It does sound like the training of the elite soldiers is pretty awful, but he's still in a position of privilege and control and came across as rather spoiled and whiny.

As is so very common in YA nowadays, there are also romantic undertones, in the form of two love triangles. Yup, Laia is drawn to Elias, as well as one of the brave and plucky rebels. Elias finds himself attracted to both Laia and his best friend Helene, who is also one of his rivals in the trials for Emperor. There's a whole load of meaningful glances, but a whole load of near-misses, where nothing much of anything happens. While the characters think about kissing, or about attractive attributes of their love interest, there is very little actual action going on. That got frustrating after a while, too.

Another thing that got to me, that was just depressing, was the constant thread of misogyny and threat of rape towards any female character in the story. It's heavily implied that the reason the Commander hates Elias so much is because he is the product of rape (this is not confirmed, but I would not be surprised if it's revealed in a later book). For some reason, they allow one woman into Blackcliff every so often, and despite the fact that their Commander is a woman, and Helene seems to be one of the best soldiers in her graduating class, there is an absolutely horrible attitude towards women, and even Helene keeps being threatened with sexual assault. It's not just the slaves that are vulnerable.

By the last third of the book, Laia has grown more of a backbone and starts getting actually interesting to read about. Elias ends up in a rather precarious position, and I appreciated the timid and oppressed girl having to rescue the big bad soldier and ending up in a position of power over him. The change in the status quo and the set-up for the next book is interesting enough that I will probably keep reading, even though this took me a while to get into.

Judging a book by its cover: This is a pretty bleak and depressing cover, but then both Laia and Elias have pretty bleak lives. There's a very big concrete wall, with hints of buildings in the background. Since both protagonists live their lives in some form of captivity, it seems appropriate, but I still don't think it's a very appealing or inviting cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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