LAIA IS A SLAVE. ELIAS IS A SOLDIER. NEITHER IS FREE.
Anyone who tells you dystopian fantasy is done for has not yet read an Ember in the Ashes. With such mixed reviews, I almost gave up on this gem before I even began, but I'm so glad I read it.
Laia lives under the brutal dictatorship of the Martial Empire, a brutal Spartan-like regime. After her brother is arrested and her grandparents killed, she seeks help from the Resistance to get her brother back. They agree, but only if she'll act as a spy in the Commandant's household. As it happens, the Commandant's son is Elias, the academy's finest recent graduate and unwilling soldier.
This book hits a lot of the normal YA tropes, but they are done perfectly, without the silly contrivances that so often mar other books. Laia is a normal teenage girl who rises to greatness because of her extraordinary circumstances, not because she's a "badass." There are no ninety-pound little girls beating up grown men in this book, no deus ex machina moments, and best of all, the burgeoning romances unfold gradually, naturally, with a heavy emphasis on the appearance-centric attraction that first occurs. Love comes later, as it must.
All of the characters feel like people, actual people, and Tahir accomplishes the seemingly impossible tasks of capturing the complicated political machinations of the Martial Empire, the Commandant, the mind-reading Augurs, and the leaders of the resistance. All of them are working against Laia and Elias, yet none of them are portrayed as mustache-twirling villains.
Even though the trend has passed, I'm still very fond of dystopian fantasy, especially when it's as well done as this. I'm looking forward to the next in the series, and I'm so glad to have read a book I loved, instead of just kinda liked.
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