Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes

Synopsis from Goodreads:
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.

This is a YA/Fantasy genre book. It is book 10/20 for my 20 Books of Summer Challenge and book 1/2 for my Completely Melanie monthly reading challenge for July.

I had seen several different reviews and thought this one, set in a world inspired by ancient Rome, sounded like an interesting twist on some of the typical YA fantasy books I’ve read this year. While I liked the concept of it, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

Let’s start with what I DID like about the book. This is a wonderfully detailed world that the characters inhabit. Enough things that are familiar from history in real life to make it seem approachable and contextually understandable, but with whispers of magic and fantastical creatures and exotic faraways lands and people to make it unique and interesting. I enjoyed the descriptions of the marketplace and the military academy, as well as the stories told by Cook.

The world-building for me, however, was overshadowed by the fact that I couldn’t get behind the main characters, particularly Laia. She spent most of the book being wishy-washy and wasting too much time churning thoughts over and over inside her head. I related to Elias more, or at least could understand some of his motivation for his actions and honestly? I wish the book at focused on Elias’s friend and fellow Mask, Hel. She seemed like a much more complex character and one I wanted to know more about.

I knew going in that this book was part of a series, but it really felt like an extended prequel to whatever happens next in the rest of the series with a lot of on again/off again action. Just around the time Laia actually got interesting, the book ended with a cliffhanger (if you know me, you know this drives me crazy!). I’ve also come to the conclusion that I’d really care for dystopian fantasy. Maybe there’s just too much on the news that’s depressing and violent, but I don’t enjoy reading about it when I’m in the mood for escapist literature. I’m okay with things not being all sun and roses for the characters (because that would make for a boring read) but this one had more meanness and violence in it than I prefer.

Overall rating 3/5 stars. This one was just “meh” for me compared to many of the other really great YA and Fantasy genre books I’ve read this year.

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