The short: 3.5/5 ✦. Features a unique plot, intricate world-building, and insightful characterization that’s ruined by pervasive romance.
This book was frustrating. Good – but frustrating. I really enjoyed about 50% of it, and the rest . . . not so much.
Let’s start off with the more positive aspects. The world is amazing; it’s a combination of real-life cultures seamlessly weaved into each other. The status system is based on professions: Scholars once ruled, but the Martials took them down 500 years ago and have been dictatoring ever since (totally a word). There are also Tribals and other peoples that try to stay out of the Scholar vs. Martial conflict. All this was actually a little confusing, but these identifiers are such a heavy part of who the main characters are, it gets easier to remember.
I liked Blackcliff, even though the idea of a school developing sadistic assassins is terrifying. The Trials were interesting, though I couldn’t help thinking of The Hunger Games – though there’s very few similarities, I assure you. In fact, this book is quite original in many aspects: the supernatural efrit and ghuls, and how they insert themselves in this realistic world; the existence of magic being downplayed; and the desert setting with characters of all types. I loved the mysterious Augurs and how they were both terrifying and terribly interesting. I liked the Commandant and how inexcusably awful she was. I liked Elias’s grandfather, despite him only being in a few scenes. I adored Helene, and how she was fierce and strong and capable .
You know who I didn’t like? Laia. The main character (along with Elias, who I did like). She was weak, both physically and as a character. I understand that being passive and frail was part of her character development, but I didn’t connect to her in any way. I didn’t like her POV sections as much as Elias’s, and I moved through them quickly. Though he had his flaws too, he managed to move past them.
Now to the negative bits, the other 50%: the romance. It wasn’t a love triangle (love angle), per se, but still incredibly annoying how pervasive it was. Look, I get it; someone can be in an intense situation and get the sexy feels when they see someone hot. Fine. But every time they see that someone? Or that second someone? Kissing wants must occur every time the two meet? Confusion must arise when “choosing” which one they like better? I hate fickle characters, I hate wishy-washiness when it comes to people’s feelings, I hate when someone strings another along because they can’t decide who they want to have sex with more. Because here, that’s really all it is. None of the characters know each other well enough to have it be anything beyond lust and pure desire (okay, two of them do, but it’s still more physical attraction than anything else). If I may be blunt, it was stupid and annoying, especially since it did take up almost half of the book. I didn’t want to read about that; I wanted to know more about this world, I wanted to spend more time with the other characters (especially Helene!), I wanted to explore the political ramifications of a new Emperor and dealing with the Resistance and how Laia’s brother plays into all this. That’s what was fascinating, that’s what kept me reading, and that’s what I think earned this book’s popularity. Everything else is just loud white noise.
I will be reading the sequel (thank goodness there is one), and I hope that the romancey nonsense will be sorted out by then. There are larger things at stake here, kids! I also hope Helene gets a POV of her own, because she’s way more complex and developed than Laia, and it would be interesting to have a perspective of someone truly loyal to the Empire.
Header image: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, published April 28th 2015 by Razorbill.