An Ember in the Ashes (An Ember in the Ashes, #1)
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.I finished this book furious: not only was it a waste of money, not only was it a waste of time, and not only was it a nonsensical clusterfuck filled with stupid, two-dimensional characters, silly romance, abominable world-building and the ghosts of like a hundred other YA dystopias/high fantasies haunting its pages, but the hype was absolutely astronomical. I have never seen a hype train like it - claims that it's the next Game of Thrones, that it's the best book of 2015, that it's life-changin I finished this book furious: not only was it a waste of money, not only was it a waste of time, and not only was it a nonsensical clusterfuck filled with stupid, two-dimensional characters, silly romance, abominable world-building and the ghosts of like a hundred other YA dystopias/high fantasies haunting its pages, but the hype was absolutely astronomical. I have never seen a hype train like it - claims that it's the next Game of Thrones, that it's the best book of 2015, that it's life-changing. Testimonials from authors and bloggers that I love and respect had following this book around like secondhand smoke. And boy, did I buy into it. I was walking around in the book store, unsure of what to buy, when a sales associate approached me and asked if she could help. I asked her if she could recommend anything to me, and the first words from her mouth were, "An Ember in the Ashes".I'd heard of it, and heard of the hype, and I already loved Sabaa Tahir because she's so cool. The $29 price tag on it seemed ridiculous, but I really wanted it - damn, I really really wanted this book. I wanted this book so badly that I gave it not one but two chances to woo me. Two. That's more than a lot of books get in their lifetimes. The first time I tried to read this, I nearly died. I put it down after 204 pages because I just could feel my fucking organs shutting down. Then, six months later, for the sake of my Goodreads reading challenge, I gave it another shot. I got all the way through it this time, but I'm only angrier.
Where do I even begin? With the shallow, stupid, selfish characters? The idea of creating a compelling female character who isn't kick-butt, who isn't Wonder Woman, who cries and is scared and is weak but who does the best she can with what she has, is ingenious to me. So often in YA, female protagonists are pigeon-holed as kick-butt caricatures whose only weakness is hawt boyz, but there is nothing compelling about Laia: she has the personality of a fucking doorknob. Flat, uninteresting, trite, stupid. She is so reckless, and despite growing up in an Empire where it is clear that everyone has an ulterior motive, she ignores fields of red flags, and the fact that she is being lied to over and over and over again. She knew that Mazen was contradicting himself about her brother's whereabouts, and yet...she's surprised when she finds out that he was using her? Nothing he says ever adds up. You know someone is lying to you and purposely withholding information, and sending you off on an insane mission where you're to "prove yourself" by becoming a slave (???) and spying on a person who has sniffed out every single prior attempt to spy on her (????) and yet you don't think there's anything untrustworthy about that?
Elias is like the ancient Rome incarnation of those neck bearded dudebros on Reddit who talk about "male brain" and say things like "egalitarian" and "ad hominem". He is a complete tool, the most brazenly selfish character ever written. He is worse than Holden Caulfield. Time after time after bloody time he is faced with a choice between the bigger picture and his dick, and every single time he chooses his dick, no matter who will end up dead as a result, no matter how many villages and indigenous populations will burn to death now that Marcus is Emperor, no matter how many times that it is made clear his vow not to "cross the line" will inevitably be dragged through the mud. He is an absolute airhead: "I am against slavery and if I become Emperor it will be within my power to abolish slavery, and I am against the killing of the Scholars, and if I become Emperor I will be able to restore human rights to the Scholars, but I will forego saving forty million lives in exchange for this one. I will allow a rapist and murderer to become a tyrant because, even after killing most of my friends, I cannot kill one girl."Killing Laia would have been an atrocity. But atrocities are happening, have happened, and worse ones will come to pass in the future because Elias is such a piece of shit that he would put the tent in his pants ahead of a legacy of slavery and genocide. (Do not tell me that it is his sense of human decency that stops Elias killing Laia. Elias does nothing but admire Laia in a sexually provocative context, just as he does Helene, whose every movement is punctuated by Elias's lust - his armour makes him look powerful, but Helene's makes her look beautiful! And the most important thing is beauty.) (If this, his refusal to kill Laia, was a case of his being unwilling to bring harm to an innocent, then spare a thought for the millions of innocent lives that Elias could have saved by becoming Emperor. And the millions of innocent lives that will be ruined, scarred, and ended by Marcus ascending. An ascension
that Elias could have prevented.)But along that vein there's the romance: trite, pointless, devoid of feeling. It's not that I hated Keenan or Helene, it's that I didn't give a tiny rat's ass about them. They were flat, soulless characters, there only to create Very Obvious Obstacles in the Laia and Elias show, which in itself was just embarrassing. Stop awkwardly kissing, stop carrying each other around, stop mooning over each other's hot faces and pretending that any of that is grounds for a romance in which each participant would forfeit their life for the other. Laia: Elias is hot.Elias: Laia is hot.Laia/Elias (in unison): We would die for each other. Are you serious? Being willing to give your life to save someone else is completely against human nature. It is not a vow to be taken lightly. But this book does take it lightly, because every second page someone is claiming that they would give their life for someone else.
And it's this sort of melodrama that robs An Ember in the Ashes of its seriousness: each and every one of the Trials was an obscene, absurd, wasteful piss-take that annihilated what small scrap of sense the world-building made in the first place. The Emperor is all-powerful, and yet he cannot stop a troupe of holy men from usurping his throne? He is assassinated by the Resistance in a mission that was, and I quote, "too easy". The reason why his dynasty is dying is because he has no male issue - this is specifically stated - and yet a woman, Helene, is chosen to compete in the trails?The Augurs are all-powerful holy men, and yet there is absolutely no mention of religious parameters, places of worship, dates and times of worship, or religious customs or holidays. I take this to mean that religion is not important in The Empire (the empire doesn't have a name?) and yet holy men are calling the shots...more than the Emperor?Fourteen years of training, thousands and thousands of pounds (currency is never ever mentioned, not even in passing, so values will be presented in Pounds Sterling) poured into weapons and armour and clothing and food, as well as thousands more spent on paying tutors and the Commandant, and what comes out of Blackcliff? They kill half of their student body. Young people they have spent astronomical resources on are tossed aside as if they're worthless. Are they? No, they aren't. They are an investment. How has the Empire lasted for so long if they're so incredibly clueless about managing their finances?Speaking of the Commandant, what a terrible villain. What a flat, irritating, cartoonish character. Why is she evil? Because she is. Oh, and she also wanted an abortion once! But yeah, she's a total asshole, and she kills people, and there is absolutely nothing scary about her because there is nothing human, or subversive, or nuanced about her. You can spend decades honing protagonists, but if you cheap out on your villain, then what's the point? It's like the King of Adarlan, who didn't even have a fucking name. Do not present this silly pantomime of a villain and expect her to be compelling in any way, shape or form. She was a crap character, full stop.I don't want to keep banging on about it, but seriously, guys: the world-building. It is intellectually bankrupt. No other kingdoms or empires are mentioned, so does the Empire export anything? How have they stayed afloat if they're so wasteful? What is the purpose to any of this - what is the Empire's staple? What is its industry? Currency, customs, origins, anything? I have no idea. I have no idea what the Empire is, what it's like, why it hasn't fallen like fucking Rome. Even the map is amazingly sparse. There are what, four cities? And a bunch of hamlets? Isn't this supposed to be some vast, sprawling expanse of wealth and power? It isn't. It's Blackcliff and scores of wasteland. How are the Trials, which are nothing but four giant bloodbaths, going to find a new Emperor? The Aspirants were tested on nothing but brawn and capacity to kill. They know nothing about running a country, nothing about diplomacy, nothing about managing money, nothing about conservation or land management, nothing about anything to do with being a political leader. The whole concept of the Trials was absurd and pointless. This book's one saving grace is its writing, which isn't bad. It's melodramatic and corny but it's fine. The content is what pulverizes it. It's boring, hella boring, and then it's frustrating, and then it's stuffed with gratuitous references to rape that have no emotional context. Laia is constantly being told that the students at Blackcliff will definitely rape her because she's beautiful, as if rape has anything to do with sexual desire, anything to do with the victim's beauty, anything to do with male urges and female allure. Rape is a crime of violence, power, control and subjugation, and I cannot believe that this book fumbles so spectacularly on a subject that is so precarious. This book does not have the wherewithal to deal with occupational or wartime rape with any measure of dignity or finesse, or even any humanity. This book should have left it well enough alone.
I'm flabbergasted by the hype over this book, and how popular it is, and why precious few are picking it up on its derivative, contrived, infuriatingly limp content. This book, to me, was about as disappointing as it gets. I was excited to read this when it first blinked on the radar - I was excited, and I wanted to love it. But I am so let down. It was a waste of my money, and I hate saying that. But it's true. It was such a waste....more