{Review} An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

The Black Witch

by Laurie Forest
Published May 2017
Goodreads: See here

Synopsis at a Glance:

Laia is a slave. 

Elias is a soldier. 

Neither is free.

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



Well this definitely wasn’t my favorite read of the year. I’m torn between the feeling that my expectations were just way too high for this book, and the feeling that this book was underwhelming as hell.

Before we start, I’d like to just remind everyone of my review rating scale. 2 stars means I thought the book was okay. I didn’t love it I like I hoped I would, and while I wouldn’t read it again, it wasn’t all bad. So please keep that in mind before anyone moves to jump on me for what I recognize is a highly divisive opinion here, where the book is mostly beloved. I still think this book probably has a lot to offer for young readers who are new to the YA Fantasy genre, but for someone who is pretty schooled it in it and in adult fantasy at this point, there’s little to nothing new or groundbreaking here.

While I appreciate Sabaa Tahir as an author, and think her prose was the best thing about this book, I just had so much trouble relating to all of the rest of it. One of the things I just can’t overlook is that this book seems to have no idea what it wants to be. Is it a YA Fantasy, or is it a YA Dystopian novel? I don’t think the author could even tell you, and it’s impossible to decipher it from what little worldbuilding is actually done in this novel.

We know it takes place in the desert, and that there’s an Empire and and a Resistance, but that’s about it. We have no idea what the rest of this world or the continent looks like. Tahir would have us believe that this Empire is a grand and far-reaching military system, but based on the map provided at the beginning of the book it’s a fairly sparse affair situated in the middle of a wasteland. There’s nothing in the text that implies how far-reaching this empire is; what these people worship; how their economy works, nothing. The people are either dumped into two categories: those in favor of the empire, or those against it, and we don’t even know how these groups came about.

The general confusion that is the world is worsened by the totally confusing introduction of the supernatural. When it’s introduced, both sides (Resistance and Empire) are certain that the supernatural are myth, but then to really confuse things Tahir introduces shadow-creatures that haunt Laia; jinn and efrit that attack certain characters; and immortal creatures called the Augers that dictate the entirety of the what happens in the plot the entire way through. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s impossible to buy that these characters have difficulties accepting the supernatural, but immediately accept the word of the Augers, characters that they don’t actually believe are supernatural beings, and allow them to dictate the entire course of the plot.

Because of this, I had trouble accepting the entire narrative flow of the plot, which flew straight into dystopian territory around 20% in when the competition factor was introduced. It makes zero sense that this militarized empire would simply accept their best and brightest students being forced into a competition to the death to name a new emperor. For one, these are teenagers (up to 20 years old) and we know for a fact that there are established older figures in this world with more control. It’s never explained how they feel about the fact that a teenager is soon to be their new Emperor, or why a more established house would simply accept the word of the Augers at face value over that of their emperor in a militarized Empire.

There’s no logic in this world, and because of that it’s impossible for readers to draw logical conclusions about it. One would have to totally draw their own conclusions based on conjecture, which is a lousy way to establish realism in a world. 

That’s not even touching on the fact that this entire book is plot influencing characters, rather than the other way around (as it should be). Characters should inform on plot. They should be making decisions that shape the way the plot moves and grows. In this case, Laia and Elias both allow the plot to completely sway their decisions the entire way through. I lost track of the amount of times both characters had an enemy at swordpoint and had the opportunity to greatly diminish their personal troubles and just let them go because of reasons that are totally unexplained. Marcus was one character that would have been dead multiple times over had Elias or Laia been competent characters instead of totally incompetent.

There’s so little dimension to the characters. Everyone is either totally good, or totally bad. Even Elias, who is often making misguided decisions based off of the head in his pants, is totally a good guy a heart and it’s impossible to dispute that by the end of the book. The Commandant and Marcus are evil characters who are totally and indisputably bad the entire way through, and we know this because they’re constantly mutilating other characters and threatening them with rape. There’s no subtlety here in their characterizations, which made it incredibly difficult to think of them as real people.

All in all this was just a confusing slog for me. This is a book that can’t tell what it wants to be. Does it want to be a fantasy or dystopian? Does it want to be a story about characters overcoming oppression or recognizing their privilege and casting it off? Does it want to be a supernatural story or a story about tyrannical leaders? Ultimately, I’m not even sure the author really knows anymore, which makes it impossible for me to drum up any interest in the rest of the series. This is where I check out.

A buddy read with the wonderful Chelsea Humphrey. So sorry that this one didn’t work out for us!


🌟🌟✯ = 2.5/5 stars – rounded up for Goodreads.

What did you think of this book? What about its sequel? Have you even been disappointed by a series you thought was overhyped? Let me know in the comments section below. 





20 thoughts on “{Review} An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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  1. oh god, this one disappointed me too. I think it was trying to appeal to both the old dystopia craze and the new fantasy craze??

    I think this one is an unpopular opinion but the romance was just. uck. Laia and Elias’ relationship grossed me out on so many levels. there’s this scene where the commandment walks in on them chatting and he pretends he was just trying to rape her and that just… I know it’s meant to be subversive, but oh man, it was kind of revolting to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Completely agree Elise!! The love square in this book just didn’t do anything for me either. Like don’t these characters have too much going on to be crushing on multiple People? And the way that rape was constantly thrown around as a threat in this book really rubbed me the wrong way.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. oh god, yeah, I hated the treatment of rape. Sabaa Tahir seems like a completely lovely and hilarious person, but… I really wish she’d thought a bit more about how some of that book sounded :/

        Liked by 1 person

      2. and the love square was just one of the worst things I’ve ever read. not even a love triangle – it had to have FOUR people!! that’s just next level

        Liked by 1 person

      3. The love square was far and away the worst thing in my mind. I can sort of buy two people leaning on each other in the face of difficult times to get through it, but the fact that each of the leads had their own love triangles that sort of overlapped was too much for me too!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting review!! It is definitely a different opinion from what I normally see, but that gives me a little perspective and something to keep in mind on my read through! I will be reading it at some point in the future, so I will be interested to see how I feel afterwards. I love that you are always honest in your reviews! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I did actually find another person who felt the same as you. How funny to find two in one day. It’s nice to have a difference of opinion though. Nothing is perfect and books are meant to be read differently by different people :).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Totally. I hate that we feel like we have to apologize for posting a negative review, or a review that is different than most, because we don’t agree with something. I like being able to see why someone has a different opinion then mine and talking about it and getting a different perspective! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m sad you didn’t love it. But you do bring up some stuff that I never noticed when I listened to it. I think for the most part, many people don’t know the other parts of the supernatural because they’re not as out in the open. You get more of that in the next book. You do learn way more of the reach of the empire and even more of people’s intentions. I do recommend the second book to see if you like it more. Love your reviews as always 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I felt bad that I didn’t enjoy it more! I saw flashes of greatness and things I really did like that carried me through to the end, I think I was just let down by the hype though. I definitely may try the second book at some point (as I already own it!) but I think I’ll give it awhile and let my expectations cool first.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read this book once upon a time, before my (relatively recent) mega-consumption of Fantasy, about a year ago: Before I started writing. SO, I remember ‘An Ember in the Ashes’ being good. I know I found the prose to be very beautiful.
    However, when I recently read the second book (A Torch in the Night), I also noticed the concerns you’ve brought up in this post. The flaw that annoyed me the most is the fact that the world (and story) has so much potential, but world-building is highly minimal, and several features of the world/story/characters are static. Nothing seems dynamic… I attributed this to the fact it’s a YA series. Still disappointed, tho.
    I also remember ‘An Ember in the Ashes’ being better than the second. Not sure if that’s because I read ‘A Torch in the Night’ AFTER my mega-consumption of fantasy, or if ‘An Ember in the Ashes’ objectively is better. But I do know for a fact ‘A Torch in the Night’ dreadfully NEEDED a few more rounds of stringent editing. It seemed as if the author stopped giving a S#!T because she’s already published. She clearly didn’t give a F#%K about the quality of her work, LOL.
    I’m reluctant to reread the first book now because I want to hold on to that tiny sliver of happiness ‘An Ember in the Ashes’ once brought me.
    Oh the beautiful ignorant days! Ignorance truly is bliss! I don’t know which is better, to enjoy any story as served, or to pick and pull them apart, find every flaw, and never feel satisfied (or, very rarely feel FULLY satistied). They both have their pros and cons, but I think I’ll forever be stuck with the latter.
    Great review 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Thomas! And thanks for the wonderful comment too. See, I think a big issue I had with this book is probably that at this point I’ve read a lot of YA, and this one didn’t really seem to offer much of anything new. I do agree that the prose was well done, but it was all the other stuff I had problems with. I think that my high expectations didn’t help much either.

      I had heard that A Torch in the Night was even worse than the first book, which was a big deciding factor to not continue with the series at this point. If the author lost interest at that point, I’m sure I would as well.


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