Book Review: An Amber in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (3/5)

27774758 YA Fiction/Fantasy

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.

Are you ready for the unpopular opinion? Because here it comes.

First – I’m not a fan of alternating first-person narrators. They tend to end up sounding exactly the same. In this case, as in several other cases, it feels like Laia and Elias are fighting for “main character” status. Personally, I would have picked ONE main character.

It drives me insane when one character learns something or thinks something, and in the following chapter, the other character learns the SAME THING or thinks the SAME THING. It’s a waste of my time as a reader.

In the beginning, I felt more connection to Elias than Laia; she came off as whiny and the typical “weak girl who has everything taken away in the first three pages so that she can learn to be strong but fails over and over only to find her inner strength in the last few pages in order to save the day.” Elias came off as the typical “prodigal son that doesn’t like his destiny and is the only one who doesn’t see the empire as good.”

Que the prophecy scene where the old wizened guy tells Elias about his destiny. Cue the scene where the four “chosen ones” are Elias, “the girl” Helene, Obvious Villain Marcus, and Marcus’s lackey Zak – it felt so typical for the main character, the girl in his life, and the bully and the bully’s lackey to be thrown into the Trials together – I mean, typical in the rolling-eye kind of way.

Everything about  this novel felt typical, expected, unoriginal. Laia is just there. She’s not participating in the plot as it unfolds around her. Other people are telling her what do to, or giving her two options, and she’s got to make a decision between them – she’s not making her own decisions, and she’s bland as bland can be. And I have a tolerance of bland “Bella Swan” characters as long as there’s a plot to fall in to, which, in this case, is the “my brother and only family has been taken and I must save them.”

The resistance is obviously lying to her, but she’s acts to stupid and doesn’t realize. She’s supposed to be what, 17? She acts like a child for the better part of this book. Sometimes this book felt more MG than YA.

It felt so much like every other “boy meets girl and together they take down the tyrannical overlord” story.

And the whole “Augurs see the future and are controlling the plot” just rubs me the wrong way. I like characters who shape the plot themselves, not because some fortune tellers are playing puppermaster behind the scenes. GAGS

And if I took a shot of coconut rum every time the word “rape” appears in this book, I’d have to be taken to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. I get that his book is set in a world were women aren’t highly thought of, but geewiz! I’m don’t consider myself a feminist, but this book had my feminist buzzers going crazy. Every male character (apart from the male lead) is sexist to the extreme. From the way the male characters talk/think/act/look at female characters, to the way they are treated – bleh.

This book felt so… simplistic and dumbed down. I can’t stand when YA books do that, like teenagers aren’t smart enough to put 2 and 2 together. They are.

On a whole, this book isn’t bad. It’s just not great. I wanted more depth – to the characters, to the world, to the setting, to the lore, to EVERYTHING. You know, the “fantasy book” kind of depth where it feels like I’m walking with the characters down the streets or through the halls, where I’m in the world; I want more immersion. I wanted MAGIC! There was so little of that fantastical element, I was disappointed.

And there is so much that I don’t get about this world – like the masks that the Masks wear. They mold to their face – but how? why? can they move their jaws? their eyes? can they breathe? Helene gets a shirt made out of the same material and it molds to her skin – so she can’t ever take this shirt off. It becomes skin. So… what if she has a baby and wants to breastfeed down the rode? Nope, sorry, you’ve got an iron shirt.

The main question I have through this entire book – BUT WHY? The character’s motivations are so weak. The villains have no motivations other than “because they’re evil.” Sure, there’s this Nightbringer guy, but he’s hardly in the book. I get that this is part of a series, but it feels like the first part of a large book – like there should still be something left to this book. It felt incomplete. This book was so focused on Laia being a victim that it forgot the rest of the plot.

That being said, the writing was great. Tahir can use words to paint lovely pictures, I just wish she would have painted more sooner, rather than waiting until 40% into the novel to pick up the brush.

I almost put this book down about 60% of the way into it, but I scanned the reviews and I spotted several reviewers whose opinion of this book mirrored my own mention that the book picked up in the last half, so I decided not to give up hope.

But by the time I got to the pick-up part, I didn’t care about the characters anymore.

The writing is fantastic, but the plot is watery, the characters are typical, and the setting leaves much to be desired. So, An Amber in the Ashes gets a 3 out of 5 from me.

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