I binged the three published entries in the AEITA quartet at the speed of sound, so I’m going to review them all together. If this is your thing, you will be VERY into these books. It’s only 80% my thing, so I’m only 80% into it.

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 Goodreads review perfectly describes my conflicting feelings about the book, which is trope-laden and predictable but still somehow an exciting ride. I have serious reservations about the quality and content of these books, but I can’t deny that I gobbled them up and remain very invested in the characters.

In my ongoing thread of all the books I read in 2019 as The Good Place gifs, An Ember in the Ashes was represented by this gem:

Because THAT’S WHAT IT’S LIKE READING THESE BOOKS. They are violence with a side of injury, served on a plate of war, drizzled with blood and served at the Red Wedding.

bok cover: an ember in the ashes
I miss the original covers, but I love the colors and character art on the revamped versions.

Was all that violence called for? I think so. It fits in the gritty, dangerous fantasy world that Tahir created, and it was central to several character arcs. Did it get tiresome after a while? Also yes. After a certian point, all the beatings and maimings started to run together and lose their power. Several characters perform a lot of violence in these three books, and we’re told that it’s traumatic, sure, but I’m not sure these books are able to really reckon with what that entails, especially for a teenager.

I’m going to put these books on my growing list of Should Have Been NA. Most of these characters would be more at home as early twenty-somethings.

I also have reservations about the series’ overreliance on rape or the threat of rape as a plot device, especially in the first book. Sure, it feels “realistic” (whatever that means in a FANTASY WORLD), but there are other ways to give female characters backstory, create rescue scenes, and show how evil characters are (or, even worse, how attractive characters are). Thankfully, sources of danger were more varied in the next two books.

book cover: a torch against the night
BEAUTIFUL uk cover

The story is highly predictable, falling neatly into well-established patterns of the genre, but the execution is so damn good that I didn’t really care. I would read a phone book if Sabaa Tahir wrote it. It’s so rare to see a writer have such a mastery of pacing and action and character and tone, and Tahir’s writing is just spectacular.

I was a Latin-taking, History-loving geek in high school, so I absolutely love the Roman-inspired setting. While some aspects are a little flimsy, the world is much deeper and more fleshed-out than those in similar series.

Unfortunately, for me, the shine wore off An Ember in the Ashes as the series went on. I am VERY invested in Elias’ and Laia’s individual journeys and their relationship, so the less the books focus on that, the less I care. I don’t find the overarcing quest, the Big Bad, or the Resistance (which, in this case, is actually called The Resistance) compelling, so A Reaper at the Gates was a little dissapointing for me. On the upside, though, we got much more Helene, and I loved it.

book cover: a reaper at the gates

As bloody and nasty as this world is, I was suprised to find one of my all-time favorite ships in this series. Sabaa Tahir knows exactly how to endear readers to her characters, and the romantic arc is wonderfully excruciating. Even though ARATG only had a few scenes between the two of them, they alone were worth the price of admission.

All told, I have some reservations about these books, but I’d be lying if I said I won’t be preordering or requesting a copy of the final installment as soon as it’s announced. While the extreme violence and epic conflict aren’t for me, it’s easy to see why so many readers have fallen in love with these books.

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