You know that book, where the story is good, but the writer makes choices that actually detract from your enjoyment? I don’t mean killing off a beloved character. Some characters have to die. I mean, flat out, poor, nonsensical choices that they keep trying to force in when that just isn’t in the cards, fam.
Welcome to An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir.
The story sounds great: meet Laia, a girl from an oppressed community whose brother is wrongly accused of being a rebel and is abducted and taken away to prison, and her family slaughtered by the empire. Meet Elias, a shining pupil of the empire’s military academy who wants to desert. Laia joins the rebellion as a spy in exchange for them rescuing her brother and Elias… is still planning on deserting one way or another.
Here are four things that actually ruined An Ember in the Ashes for me, not in an effort to tear Tahir down, but in the hopes that people learn from this.
Mostly spoiler free.
1: Repetition serves no purpose.
[Content Warning: There is mention of the word “r*pe”.]
This is such a minor thing in theory. We all do it. We reuse imagery for consistency. I get it. However, this repetition was so strong that it actually confused me, didn’t serve a purpose, and just felt excessive. If you cut out how many times Laia describes someone’s eyes as “dark”, the book might be ½ pound lighter. Yes, we get it. They’re dark. You said that already. This is doubly so for talk of rape.
It makes sense–this is a time where men brutalize women. However, I counted 14 times in the first half of the book where someone casually mentions rape or threatens it. That’s a lot. And that’s excessive. Again, we already know that they are brutal. We know that this happens. So it stops serving a purpose, and instead is the only form of character development for the bad guys: they’re rapists. ‘How do we make them scary, now that we’ve upped the ante? Mention rape again!’ I’m not even kidding. It was so jarring, that I would immerse myself in the pages and then BAM, someone’s threaten to rape one of these two characters for the 14th time in 30 chapters and I’m not even done. Sigh.
2: Characters are one-dimensional.
Laia has no personality. What does she like? What does she not like? Does she have any hobbies? Does she have any interests? If her family had not been murdered, if her brother had not been abducted, what would she do? What does she laugh at? Where does she find joy? Peace? Her entire personality is boiled down to: being insecure, not knowing just how beautiful she is (as Elias kindly reminds us god-knows how many times), fixating on her brother. Saving her brother, her only family, is important, but that’s not a personality trait.
As for Elias, he makes jokes. He’s kind of funny. He has hopes and fears and a backstory. I actually kind of liked him… but the way he interrupts the story to oogle at Helene and Laia is distracting. It serves no purpose. Laia is covered in scars and doing her spy shit and he’s all “wow she’s so beautiful and she doesn’t even know it” and “wow she’s so beautiful she is going to get a lot of attention” and “wow her lips are kissable I want to kiss them”… while Helene is kicking his ass.
This goes back to being repetitive, but it felt like Tahir could not write a male character without making him either bloodthirsty or distractingly sexual or plot points. If they are not murdering people, they are objectifying and threatening to assault women and, yes, sure, you don’t owe anybody a multi-faceted male character but if you are going to make him a narrator… maybe you should try not to have them derail your own story?
3: Things didn’t make sense??
In the very beginning of the book, after witnessing the death of her grandparents, Laia starts to see these monsters called ghuls. They feed off of sadness and death. They terrorize her and she is afraid of them. And then they just disappear? She sees them twice and then never again. And I don’t know why.
There is also this magic of jinn and efrits, and they appear, and then they disappear and everyone is like… “ok but Laia is beautiful and she doesn’t even know it”
The magic felt underdeveloped and I wonder the purpose, since it took up so much reading and dialogue only to be abandoned halfway through.
4: Mmmm, shitty romance tropes.
This is my biggest pain point and the major reason I have to dock the book to a ⅖. This book would have been so, so, so, so much better and solid without the love triangle. It’s not because I hate love triangles. I love a good love triangle. But this one isn’t good. There are a couple of abusive romance tropes, red flags, and things that just… don’t make sense for a relationship.
Keenan is a broody, cold, distant asshole for 70% of the book, and suddenly he says, “I’ve been thinking about you for days.” But why? You told her she was weak, that she would die. Now that she survived someone carving her up and beating her to the point her eyes were swollen shut, suddenly you’re in love? You want to run away together? She’s bruised and beaten so now you wanna kiss her? And I’m supposed to believe that? Their relationship had absolutely no development. There was no shift from mild dislike to romance. He is cold and distant and mean. He is unsupportive and he also knows absolutely nothing about her. Do you know her hopes and dreams? Her hobbies? Her pet peeves? (Of course, he doesn’t–I don’t even know.)
Laia is not any better, and I feel like connecting violence and murder with love is bizarre and dangerous. Elias confesses to Laia that he is hurt, he has been crying because he murdered his friends and he chose to stab his best friend in the heart so Laia decides now is an appropriate time to kiss him and he just casually forgets he killed his friends because Laia puckers her lips????? Bitch what???
It just… it doesn’t feel natural. It doesn’t feel like a natural progression, and so much of these romantic moments are framed around people being murdered and attacked. It is so distracting, and I feel like these moments could be excellent foundations for a friendship that could MAYBE lead to romance DOWN THE ROAD, but plowing through to locking lips isn’t natural. It feels forced and not really thought through and the book would’ve been better without it.
So overall, these points really stopped me from enjoying the book fully because every few pages, I was pulled out of the fun by someone casually threatening to sexually assault this character AGAIN, or by Elias interrupting the story to oogle at this character AGAIN FOR NO REASON, or by someone trying to build sexual tension at the most inappropriate of times. Maybe the following books of the trilogy will fix this, but I doubt it.
Such a shame too.