I’ve been quietly collecting Sabaa Tahir’s books for years, but it wasn’t until recently when I heard her final book for the Ember in the Ashes series was coming out. That alongside a partnership with Penguin Teen has me finally picking up this series and reading it. Let me tell you something, folks, this book did NOT disappoint. Usually, I end up giving the first book in a new (to me) series 3 or 4 stars. It’s not a bad thing, but usually I feel like first books need to establish a ton of world building, introduce the characters, have some growth, and also include some plot devices to move the story forward.
With this particular story, I felt like this was next level. The world building was probably the most minimal part of this story, but I’m figuring that with the other books in the series that will easily be remedied. Here’s more about the book (CW: Rape and sexual harassment threats):
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.
I am so amazed and impressed by this novel.
This story is told through dual POVs alternating between chapters. There is some backtracking on some of the chapter starts because simultaneous scenes happen.
First, the pacing. It feels so natural and moves quickly without overlooking the details. I felt like each event led up to the next. I read some reviews where people thought Elias and Laia’s relationship was forced, but truthfully it didn’t feel like that for me. I thought their progression towards becoming friends was natural. I think it helped that there was an immediate physical attraction to one another. Ahhh young love.
The gradual growth on Laia’s part was my favorite. She starts off as this meek young woman who lived her existence pretty quietly. The experiences she faced while being enslaved to the Commandant really toughened her up. Granted, no one should experience what Laia experienced, but it did lend to her growth and strength. If anything, I would have loved to see more of Laia’s thought process and how she defied the Commandant than just see her pick up a knife and get right to it.
Elias was also a great and complicated character. I felt like the book emphasized Elias’s story much more especially with the surprises about his family, his upbringing, and the decisions he needs to make during the trials. I was way more enamored with Elias’s chapters than with Laia’s. Don’t worry, though. Laia goes through her own personal trials and they aren’t ones to be scoffed at.
I think the only issue I had was that there were a lot of sexual harassment and rape threats. While I understand this is the world that Sabaa Tahir creates, I thought it was weird that the only thing soldiers were interested in doing with women was forcing sex on them. Isn’t that weird? Maybe that’s just me.
I also loved that this book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. It was the perfect stopping point to get you pumped for the next book without making you wait a million years to see what happens. I felt no rush to get into the next book aside from my own personal excitement.
Overall, I really loved the story and the introduction to this world. I hope that with the next book Tahir will dive a little bit further into this world, but for a first book in a new (to me) series I’m very impressed.