An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir, is an intriguing novel written from two points of view. In a world inspired by Ancient Rome Laia is from an impoverished, oppressed people under the rule of the Martial Empire. Elias is one of the finest graduating students at the ruthless Martial soldier school.
As Laia's brother, the last of her family, is taken prisoner by the Martials, she is desperate to find a way to save him from execution. Soon she finds herself asking help from a hidden rebel group - state enemies of the Martials - and ends up a slave at the cruel and unforgiving Commandant of the infamous soldier school.
In the mean time Elias struggles with his plans of desertion, a crime - though too common at the school - is punishable by death. Surrounded by friends that have trained alongside him most of his life to hunt down criminals, and with a new arriving group that is rumored to be able to read minds, he is having an increasingly difficult time hiding his plans.
As the story progresses Laia and Elias' separate stories start to intertwine, giving them unlikely common ground.
Tahir's "An Ember in the Ashes" is certainly a breath of fresh air. There is something about her story that is just different from most other books that are out there, and it is a joy to read. She writes well, although her ... short, I think ... writing style takes a little time to get used to, and she has a way to keep things fast paced and interesting.
I really like that the story is told equally between Elias and Laia, giving us readers a chance to see two very different aspects of the world. However, I wished from both of them that they would tell a little bit more about the world; I felt that there was so much focus on the character and story building that the "stories behind" were a little negleted, if that makes sense. It makes the story seem a little simplified.
The main annoyance of this book, however, the part that pulled this from an otherwise 4,5 to a 4 for me, was that the main characters - especially Laia - has a tendency to just run away from, forget or simply overlook very important information. This made me guess at and understand a lot of things long before the main characters did. I mean, there were still many surprises; awesome or terrifying twists and outcomes I didn't foresee, but there were still too many things that I guessed at too early for me to be able to enjoy this book fully. In fact, it sort of made the main character seem a little weak. I understand that Tahir wrote things this way in an attempt to build tension and prolong excitement, but it was a little too obvious in the coming, and reflects poorly on the main characters. As a reader you want to be impressed with the hero/heroine, not feel cleverer than them.
Also I want to mention that Tahir's rhythm is a little off. Not much, mind you, just a little. I mean, there's a rhythm to good story telling; you know, there comes a point when you as a reader can feel that "now's the time for a turn of events," or "now's the time for the main character to have a life-altering realization and start behaving thereafter", and that timing is a little off.
But don't get me wrong. I really like this story. I really, really like it. Despite its horrible, gritty gruesomeness, and I really want to read the next book (because, come on, there has to be a next book! This story isn't finished!) I am impressed by Sabaa Tahir, and would read anything else she wrote, no matter if it was a continuation of this particular story or not.