Friday, November 20, 2020

Freeform Friday: The 'Ember in the Ashes' series (Including An Ember in the Ashes, A Torch Against the Night, and A Reaper at the Gates) - Sabaa Tahir

Today we're talking about the first three books from the Ember in the Ashes Series (An Ember in the Ashes #1, A Torch Against the Night #2, and A Reaper at the Gates #3).  Feel free to scroll your way to the review that most interests you, but beware of spoilers in the later reviews.

Summary: Laia is a slave.  Elias is a solider.  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 destructuion 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, it's most unwilling.  Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he's been 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 (Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  I picked up An Ember in the Ashes back in June, desperate to wash away the nightmare that is juggling three months of 'distance learning' for four kids and hoping for a little light summer, escapist reading.  Thankfully, that is what I got.  By page 100, I was already looking up quarantine- friendly ways to acquire the next book.  The plot was well-paced, intriguing, and totally hit the spot while at the same time leaving room for growth in subsequent books.  I was pretty absorbed in the story and didn't take many notes while reading so you'll have to excuse me while I stumble through (the rest of) this review.

Seventeen-year-old Laia is a wonderful heroine who learns to face her own fears and gains strength over the course of the story. I loved that the Pakistani-American author created a heroine who is not only principled, determined, and loyal, but also a woman of color.  It was nice to see that representation in the fantasy genre, particularly in a central character. Although there was a definite chemistry between Laia and another character (ZING!), they each had their own pressing problems to worry about and other options to consider in the relationship department, which I felt added an extra layer of action and suspense to the story.  Occasionally, the characters were forced to make impossible decisions, which kept things interesting, and I couldn't always divine everyone's allegiances or motivations, which gave the characters room to develop.

Structurally, the author alternates perspectives between the two main characters which kept the story moving at a fast clip.  She routinely 'switched' perspectives at pivotal moments in the story, so that I simply had to keep reading to find out what would happen next.  It was like a series of mini-cliffhangers and deliciously thrilling.  Overall, An Ember in the Ashes was an entertaining summer read about loyalty, courage, strength, and drawing a line in the sand.  Thankfully, it is only the beginning of a much larger story that I plan to continue reading in the sequel, A Torch Against the Night.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Some innuendo and sensual language (making out with bodies pressed closely together, and all that), no sex, minimal swearing (less than a handful), some violence, threats of rape, and an attempted rape.
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Summary:  Elias and Laia are running for their lives.  After the events of the Fourth Trial, Martial soldiers hunt the two fugitives as they flee the city of Serra and undertake a perilous journey through the heart of the Empire.

Laia is determined to break into Kauf -- the Empire's most secure and dangerous prison -- to save her brother, who is the key to the Scholar's survival.  And Elias is determined to help Laia succeed, even if it means giving up his last chance at freedom.

But dark forces, human and otherworldly, work against Laia and Elias.  The pair must fight every step of the way to outsmart their enemies: the bloodthirsty Emperor Marcus, the merciless Commandant, the sadistic Warden of Kauf, and, most heartbreaking of all, Helene -- Elias's former friend and the Empire's newest Blood Shrike.

Bound to Marcus's will, Helene faces a torturous mission of her own -- on that might destroy her: find the traitor Elias Veturius and the Scholar slave who helped him escape...and kill them both.  (Summary from book - Image from barnesandnoble.com)

My Review:  A Torch in the Night is the second book in the Ember in the Ashes series and it picks up in the catacombs, as Blackcliff burns.  Laia and Elias are determined to rescue Darin, Laia's brother, from a hellish prison, but first they must escape the city.  While they manage to evade immediate capture, it comes with unforeseen consequences.  What follows is a harrowing adventure across the Empire, into the Tribal lands, and other unexpected realms.  As the duo gather allies, they are also being hunted...by the one person Elias cannot bear to kill.

Laia and Elias have both come a long way since the beginning of the series and I loved seeing them both in a different light.  While the first book alternates between Laia and Elias points-of-view, the second book offers a third perspective -- Helene's.  I liked the development of her character and am thrilled she took on a more central role, which allowed me to get inside her head, understand her background, and offered the opportunity to see her familial interactions.  I was glad for the addition of her perspective and felt it enriched the story.

Like its predecessor, A Torch Against the Night has a light magical element that weaves its way through the story in the form of wraiths, jinn, efrit, ghuls, a living ghost, and a strange, hooded figure with blazing eyes.  While I could have lived without the some of the darker aspects of the story, I did like Laia and Helene emerging powers.  I was intrigued by their unexplained abilities, delighted when they had the opportunity to use them, and look forward to hearing more about the whole concept in future books. 

Have you ever been reading a book and you get the sense that something is definitely up plot-wise, but you can't quite put your finger on it and it sort of drives you crazy in all the good ways?  That's how I felt while reading this book.  A Torch Against the Night is not without a series of enigmatic secondary characters *ahemKeenanHarperShaevaCook*.  Even the antagonists, namely Marcus, Keris, and the icky icky Warden each have their own set of secrets.  While there was obviously more to their stories than the author was ready to reveal up front, the suspense kept things lively and maddeningly mysterious. I may have had an inkling or two about what might happen but was not expecting the Big Reveal, In fact, there are a few Big Reveals, and I was not expecting any of them.  After each one, the story ramped up the intensity so that by the end, I was straight up invested.

I enjoyed my time with this book and only wish I had been able to read it all in one sitting.    Thankfully, the book ends with enough closure that I didn't keel over and die, but it left enough threads untied and questions left unanswered that I'll definitely be reading the next book, A Reaper at the Gates, which *oh, look* I happen to have sitting right next to me.  If you'll excuse me...

On an unrelated note:  I should have known that Sabaa Tahir and Reneé Ahdieh (author of The Wrath & the Dawn duology and The Beautiful) were friends.  It makes sense and in hindsight, I don't know how I missed it.  I love both of their writing styles.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Some violence (executions/torture) and biblical swearing (H & D variety) is sprinkled throughout with the most popular being variations of the exclamation "ten h*lls!".  Around three uses of the B word.  Some making out (and unbuttoning) that fades to black (implied sex).
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Summary: Helene Aquilla, the Blood Shrike, is desperate to protect her sister's life and the lives of everyone in the Empire.  Yet danger lurks on all sides.  Emperor Marcus, haunted by his past, grows increasingly unstable and violent, while Keris Veturia, the ruthless Commandant, capitalizes on the Emperor's volatility to grow her own power -- regardless of the carnage she leaves in her path.

Far to the east, Laia of Serra knows that the fate of the world lies not in the machinations of the Martial court, but in stopping the Nightbringer.  During the hunt to bring him down, Laia faces unexpected threats from those she hoped would help her, and is drawn into a battle she never thought she'd have to fight.  

And in the land between the living and the dead, Elias Veturius has given up his freedom to serve as Soul Catcher.  However, in doing so, he has vowed himself to an ancient power that demands his complete surrender -- even if that means abandoning the woman he loves.  (Summary from book cover - Image from www.barnesandnoble.com)

My Review:  A Reaper at the Gates begins two months after the events of its predecessor, The Torch Against the Night.  As the story opens, the main characters are separated, forced apart by the different roles they have to play in fighting the Nightbringer and those who work for him.  The story is told from four perspectives, most often alternating between Elias, Laia, and the Blood Shrike (Helene) with occasional appearances of the Nightbringer.  Although his perspective is given infrequently, I appreciated the layers it lent his character and the insight into his motivations.

A Reaper at the Gates brims with heart-pounding action, gut-wrenching twists, and some much anticipated answers to some of the questions readers have been dying to know.  Things don't always go well for any of the characters.  In fact, in the third installment, things go terribly terribly wrong more often than not. I loved Tahir's ability to continually surprise me.  Although I may have had the sneaking suspicious that there is more to so-and-so's story, I was never able to pin down specifics until WHAM she hit me in the face with them.  Tahir also doesn't shy away from letting her protagonists fail (and fail hard), which is both a sickening gut-punch and a refreshing change from the all-I-do-is-win-win-win characters that often plague YA fiction.

One of the overarching themes of this book is sacrifice, specifically what people are willing to sacrifice for something or someone that they love.  This theme appears throughout the book, emerging in protagonists and antagonists alike, in often heartbreaking ways.  I loved that most of Tahir's characters were multidimensional -- neither patently good or definitively evil -- and that even those most loathable characters could become strangely sympathetic in a matter of minutes.  I also loved everything about Helene's character arc, her increased use of magic, and her evolving motivations; the simmering romantic tension between her and a certain soldier didn't hurt either. 

While I did enjoy the book as a whole, I struggled with a few minor details.  In this book, Helene's perspective is labeled 'The Blood Shrike'.  Even in Elias' perspective, he frequently refers to his old friend using the same terminology.  While I understand Helene's desire to distance herself from the the person she was before, it makes no sense for Elias to have adopted this kind of distancing language, especially in his own head.  In fact, it would make more sense that he would insist on referring to her as Helene instead of the Blood Shrike.  That having been said, Elias also has plenty of his own issues to deal with in this book, so perhaps his mind was just elsewhere.  I didn't particularly care for his arc this time around (as it firmly headed down a frustrating path), nor did I like where things were left at the end of this book, but that is pretty common for the book preceding the finale.  I have my fingers and toes crossed that things will veer dramatically in the next book. 

The scope of A Reaper at the Gates encompasses a larger geographic area, with more characters, a more plot complications than previous books.  I read the first half of this book in spurts (because KIDS), barely managing more than a few pages or a short chapter at a time, which made it hard to keep track of certain details. HOWEVER, right around the halfway mark my beloved husband took my four girls backpacking for a week and you can bet your pretty little book binding I sat myself down and finished this book in one shot.  My ability to read without interruption helped me finally connect to the story and holy cannoli it was INTENSE!  My chest hurt and my stomach was in knots for most of the rest of the book, leading up to a cliffhanger that had me reaching for A Sky Beyond the Storm, the final bo....WHAT DO YOU MEAN, IT's NOT OUT YET?  Well, crap. 

(Psssttt.. I wrote this review in August.  The book comes out next week)

My Rating: 4 Stars.

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some fairly minimal swearing (a few instances of the B and H words).  Some sensual dialogue, making out, and some almost-but-not-quite sex.
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The final installment of this series is coming....

December 1, 2020

Ugh.  I hate waiting.


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