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An Ember in the Ashes, Book 1

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
An Ember in the Ashes, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Gripping romantic fantasy in an alternative universe.
Parents recommend

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 5 reviews

Kids say

age 14+
Based on 8 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

An Ember in the Ashes describes different fighting styles and how a martial empire keeps people segregated into strict social castes.

Positive Messages

Individuals can make a difference in an uprising; the importance of trusting your friends and not prejudging people; the power of seeing people as humans and not their social castes or backgrounds; love is a force of courage and selflessness.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Elias and Laia both make difficult decisions and learn from their mistakes. Helene is an unconditional friend to Elias.


Characters die, whether executed as traitors, deserters, or insurrectionists, are killed in battles, or are tortured to death. The Commandant tortures and beats her slaves. A slave girl is nearly choked to death and nearly raped on more than one occasion. A man makes overt references to how he fantasizes about raping his peer and classmate.


Several longing looks and a couple of kisses. A few men leer at Helene and Laia or make unwanted advances.


Insults and exclamations such as "bastard," "plebeian," "burning hells," "idiots," "cretins," "bleeding burning," "son of a whore," "filthy," "damn."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink at a couple of receptions and festivals.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that An Ember in the Ashes is the first book in an exciting fantasy series by former Washington Post journalist Sabaa Tahir. It's set in an alternative universe with a strict caste system, and the main characters get involved in an effort to overthrow the Empire. There's a lot of violence (torture, executions, battles) and a surprising number of references to rape. Strong language is limited to insults such as "bastard" and "son of a whore," and the romance is described more as feelings of desire than as physical encounters, apart from a few kisses.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byrebma97 January 6, 2016

Very Violent But Intriguing

I'm pretty squeamish when it comes to violence, but the story was so good that I trudged through it. The setting is very interesting, but even more so than... Continue reading
Parent of a 10 year old Written byAlexa W. August 16, 2017


This book is so addictive. I've read it four times and my 12 year old daughter has read it twice. If you've read the hunger games this is way more mel... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byJflores14 June 2, 2015

Addicting and interesting tale is super violent

This book is one of a kind and is sure to make even reluctant readers want to read it! CONTENT: VIOLENCE- people are tortured, scarred, beaten, whipped, killed... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byAutumnvinson February 7, 2016

What's the story?

AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is a dual-narrative fantasy novel that follows two characters in the Martial Empire, an alternate universe with a strict caste system. Laia is a Scholar (the oppressed class) whose brother has been arrested for treason, and Elias is a precocious soldier in the Empire's elite military academy, Blackcliff. Laia joins the underground trying to overthrow the Empire in exchange for their help in getting her brother out of harm's way, but her mission is dangerous: to work as a slave for Blackcliff's ruthless Commandant. Elias, who happens to be the Commandant's estranged son, must compete in a series of trials to be the Empire's next ruler, but secretly he wishes he could run away -- especially when he meets his mother's beautiful and new intelligent slave.

Is it any good?

Despite some derivative aspects and a slow-going start, An Ember in the Ashes has a compelling story line and fascinating, well-rounded supporting characters. (Elias' best friend and classmate, Helene, who's not-so-secretly in love with him, is particularly wonderful.) But it's true that author Sabaa Tahir's novel is bound to remind readers of The Hunger Games (a series of trials with only one winner; one person can fan the flames of uprising), Red Rising (an oppressed minority secretly plots to overthrow their oppressors), and aspects of Divergent (strict hierarchy, multiple tests to prove you're brave and worthy).

Readers who prefer fantasies with a heavy dose of romance will cheer at all the longing looks and tender feelings described in the story, but they may be confused by the love "square" involving Helene, Elias, Laia, and Keenan, her handsome "handler" in the underground. Given who the main characters are, it's no secret who ends up together, but it's rare for an author to expand a love triangle to include a fourth potentially viable love interest. The novel is a treatise on the importance of standing up to oppression and the difference that individuals can make when they work together toward a better future. Unanswered questions leave readers want more, which they'll find in Book 2: A Torch Against the Night.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the growing popularity of books set in alternative universes with strict social castes. Why do such strict societies compel readers?

  • What do you like best about fantasy books set in an alternate reality? Does this universe resemble any historical times or societies?

  • How does this book portray romantic relationships? Instead of a love triangle, there's a love "square." Is it believable that a person would have strong feelings for two people? How does this compare with a love triangle?

Book details

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