An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir is an exciting YA fantasy debut.
Laia's brother is captured for spying on the government, she does the
only thing she can: she runs. Overwhelmed by guilt, she seeks out the
Resistance fighters and begs them to rescue her brother. They will only
do so if Laia is willing to take on a dangerous and probably fatal
mission. She agrees, and is placed as a slave in the household of the
Commandant of Blackcliff Academy. Blackcliff is a strict military
academy that churns out the country's leaders -- those it doesn't kill
along the way. Elias is one of the fortunate (or strong) few to survive
Blackcliff, but despite his years of training, he dreams only of escape.
He has his route all planned, and unlike other runaways that he's seen
caught and executed over the years, he thinks he can probably make it.
Unfortunately for him, the Augurs have other plans. Elias will be one of
four graduates to compete in the trials to determine the next emperor.
Laia and Elias are both fighting for their lives, in one way or another.
What will happen when their paths cross?
I really enjoyed this
book -- I found it gripping and well-written, and in many ways original,
though it didn't manage to avoid all of the conventions of the genre. I
like that Laia is not a typical butt-kicking heroine, and that she does
get some nice character development over the course of the story. Elias
is equally complex and interesting. Many of the secondary characters
are intriguing and well-developed; I'm hoping that we get to hear more
about Cook in future volumes of the series, as I have a theory about
her. And there will be future volumes; though the book does not end in
what I'd term a cliffhanger, it's obvious that the author intends to
continue the story. There were a few minor things that didn't work well
for me. I found the brutality of life at Blackcliff a bit over-the top;
it made for some rather flat villains, much less nuanced than the other
characters. I also was rooting for Laia and Elias to not end up
romantically involved, since both had another potential love interest,
and a YA fantasy without love triangles would be so refreshing. Alas,
this is not that book. Still, the romance was a relatively minor aspect
of the story, so I don't mind too much. Overall, I liked this book and
would recommend it to readers looking for an epic YA fantasy.
(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)