In the Martial Empire, there is no true justice, only the bleak ruthlessness served on its enemies and even its own people by its highly trained soldiers--or, even more feared, by the brutal, elite warriors known only as Masks. Laia knows the Empire's destructiveness well--its soldiers killed her parents and sister years before. Now she lives with her grandparents and older brother, Darin. But Darin has been acting strangely lately, and when he's imprisoned for treason, shattering her life, the charges do not surprise her: joining the Scholar's Resistance, which seeks to topple the Empire. With her little family gone and determined to help Darin, Laia goes to the one group of people she is certain will help her: the Scholar's Resistance. If he was working with them, she reasons, they will surely be willing to break her out of prison.
And they agree--for a price. Laia must go to spy on Blackcliff, the training academy for Masks, for the Resistance. Not only that, but she must do so as a slave for the Commandant, Blackcliff's notorious, perceptive leader--a mission which is, by all accounts, impossible to survive.
Meanwhile, Elias is Blackcliff's best student, hailed by many as on a path to greatness. But all he wants is to escape the brutal world he has grown up in, deserting the Empire for one of the better, kinder surrounding countries. When Elias is chosen as one of four contestants to compete to be the Martial Empire's next ruler, however, all those options slip away. And as the competition unfolds and Elias realizes truly how much more death his life is primed to entail, he must ask himself: which future, of all the possibilities, is he willing to live?
As Laia and Elias cross paths and their actions unfold, they realize their choices will determine far more than just their own lives. They will determine the fate of the Scholar's Resistance, the Emperor, and even the Martial Empire itself.
An Ember in the Ashes is an riveting novel full of intricately drawn settings and startling twists, blended together into a series opener so deftly imagined and skillfully written that I will literally follow its characters wherever they go next. Sabaa Tahir's detailed worldbuilding was one of the highlights of this novel for me; her Martial Empire, often echoing ancient Rome, feels fully imagined and well-drawn. Elias and Laia are both deeply strong and sympathetic protagonists, fully fleshed out and interesting, who, when faced with even the hardest choices, always felt as though they were making good decisions, something I always appreciate. I also feel the need to mention Helene, one of the supporting characters, who constantly surprised me and was one of the best characters in this book. Tahir's writing pulled me in from the first pages and kept me reading throughout, always with the right mix of suspense, plot twists, and difficult choices. I highly recommend An Ember in the Ashes to readers ages fourteen and up who love intense, layered high fantasy.