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Book Review

This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the first book in “An Ember in the Ashes” series.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Five hundred years ago, the Martials conquered the Scholars. Since then, the Martials have ruled the land with an iron fist, subjugating the Scholars into poverty and sometimes slavery. When the Martials murder 17-year-old Laia’s grandparents and her older brother, Darin, is taken prisoner, Laia escapes into the catacombs under the city in hopes of finding the resistance and enlisting their help to free her brother.

When she finds them, the resistance wants only to drug her and cast her away, but Laia invokes the names of her parents, legends and former leaders of the resistance. Their new leader, Mazen, agrees to free her brother if she will spy for them.

Meanwhile, Elias is getting ready to become a Mask, the most feared of all soldiers in the Martial army. But it is a life he desperately wants to flee. Over the past year, he has dug out a tunnel in the catacombs by Blackcliff, the Mask training school. He has kept his plans even from his best friend, Helene.

On the night before Elias’ planned escape, an Augur named Cain visits him. Although Elias has never believed the tales that Augurs are immortal and can see the future, he is unnerved by Cain’s uncanny ability to know his thoughts. The Augur warns him that even if he deserts, he will not be free and will become everything he hates — cruelty and evil.

The Augur also tells Elias that if he does his duty, he has the chance to be free of the Empire and become a great man. The following day, to his horror, instead of graduating from Blackcliff, Elias finds himself forced into the Trials. This is a series of life-threatening tests for four Masks. The winner will become the new Emperor. The runner-up will become his Blood Shrike, the Emperor’s right-hand man and guardian. The other two will die. Elias must compete against his rival, Marcus; Marcus’ brother, Zak; and Helene. This group is called the Aspirants.

In order to free her brother, Laia must become the slave of the Commandant of Blackcliff. The woman is notorious for her cruelty. She is also Elias’ mother, but the two hold no love for each other. The Commandant abandoned Elias to the desert to die soon after his birth. Tribesmen raised him. Tribesmen are nomads who still believe in the ancient magic of the world. Even after the Commandant beats her, Laia is still committed to spying on the Commandant and freeing her brother.

The Commandant tells the Aspirants that they will be tested for their courage, loyalty, strength of mind and heart, and cunning. The Aspirant who wins two trials wins the position of Emperor. The runner-up will be his Blood Shrike. The others, if not dead already, will be executed.

The Trials begin the next morning. Elias wakes up to find himself in a desert with a message that he must return to the bell tower by sunset of the seventh day. He wonders why the desert should test his courage, until he begins to see the people he has killed over his years training as a Mask.

As time goes on, he sees not only those he has killed, but also those he will kill in the future, including his grandfather and Helene. As Elias wrestles with the horror, he tells himself that he would never kill Helene. The vision the Augurs placed in his head fades and Helene finds him. Before the two can make it back to Blackcliff, Marcus and Zak attack them. Helene is severely wounded so Elias must carry her for two days. He barely arrives back at the bell tower before the sun sets on the seventh day.

Laia enters the Commandant’s office the following morning to serve her master. She is ordered to deliver letters. As Scholars are no longer allowed to read, the Commandant does not suspect that Laia is literate. She brings the letters to Mazen, but he is unimpressed. He warns her that she must get the resistance better information if she expects them to help free her brother.

Keenan, one of Mazen’s officers, escorts her back to the city. He is concerned for her safety as he can see that she has been beaten several times. She assures him that she can continue her assignment and leaves him to deliver one of the Commandant’s letters to a great weapon maker named Spiro.

While in his forge, Laia sees a strange creature of shadows called a ghul. It speaks in her brother’s voice and tells Laia of his torture and pain. Spiro chases the demon away. He explains that the ghuls left the world for a time but are now back. Not everyone can see them, and they feed off negative emotions. He informs Laia that he will consider the Commandant’s request for a weapon as long as Laia brings him more details. The Commandant later brands Laia for opening the letter.

The next night, Elias must face the Trial of Cunning. Fortunately, Cain has miraculously healed Helene, who was near death that morning. Together, the two friends face down assassins without much problem, but then they encounter efrits. Efrits are supernatural creatures made of sand.

Elias remembers a chant from his childhood about the demons. He urges Helene to sing, as it is supposed to make efrits flee. He then plummets from a cliff and loses consciousness. When he wakes, he is back at Blackcliff. Helene fought off the other creatures sent to kill them and eventually used her singing to heal his head wound. It is a skill people used to have in the past, but it is considered witchcraft now. Helene begs Elias to keep it secret as she does not know how she received the power.

Laia and another slave girl, Izzi, sneak out of Briarcliff to attend a festival in the village. Laia must also find the resistance and tell them news. Mazen insists that Laia must find a passageway into Briarcliff so they can then get her brother out of prison. Desperate, she agrees.

Keenen guides her back to the festival and the two share a dance. Laia finds herself drawn to the brooding soldier, only a few years older than herself. Elias, who secretly followed her, watches the two with jealousy. A Tribal woman approaches him. He recalls his past name and the speech patterns of the Tribal people easily and so does not reveal his identity to her.

After a few minutes, she whispers that she knows who he really is and that should he ever need help, her tribe will assist him. Once she leaves, Elias finds Laia again and, still disguised as a Tribesman, dances with her. They are attracted to each other, but the moment is interrupted when Martial soldiers raid the dance. Izzi recognizes Elias, and the girls must trust him to get back to Blackcliff unseen. When they reach the kitchen, the Commandant meets them. Elias pretends to sexually assault Laia so his mother will think that was the reason the girl did not answer her call.

Laia is sent to bring another message to Spiro. He tells her that her brother was his apprentice, a weapon maker for the resistance. When she informs him of Mazen’s news, that her brother is to be executed within the week, Spiro refutes it. Laia questions Keenen about the report, and he, too, suggests that Mazen may not be entirely truthful.

When Laia investigates a passage in the catacombs, Marcus brutally attacks her. He intends to rape her. Elias and Helene stop him, but Laia is badly beaten. Although Helene is jealous of Elias’ attraction to the slave girl, she agrees to sing the girl back to health. Without her ministrations, Laia would have died.

The third Trial is a brutal test in which Elias must lead his soldiers to kill Helene’s, Marcus’ and Zak’s armies. Their armies are made up of the friends with whom they have trained for years. When Elias orders some of his men to wound but not kill the others, the Augurs strike his men dead. He has no choice but to order the death of the opposing soldiers. In the end, Elias’ army wins the battle, but he takes no joy in the victory. Now he, Marcus and Helene have each won a trial, the final test of loyalty will decide who becomes Emperor.

Laia is taken prisoner by Cain and thrown, blindfolded, into a room. Elias is told she is his prize for winning the last Trial. He assures her he has no intent to rape her. Exhausted physically and emotionally from the battle, he wants only to talk and forget what has happened. He questions her about her family and assures her that her brother would not be in the prison Mazen claimed. Over the course of the night, the two console each other with their stories. Eventually, they share a passionate kiss, but Elias forces Laia away, not willing to let his desire go any further. Instead, they share memories for the rest of the night.

Elias must face the last Trial, that of loyalty. Laia is brought, bound and gagged, before him and the other two Aspirants. They are ordered to kill her as a traitor to the Empire. Helene attacks Marcus instead, but orders Elias to kill Laia so he can become the Emperor. Once Marcus is subdued, Helene again begs Elias to kill the slave. She then offers to do it herself, promising that she will free Elias of his oaths to the Empire once she becomes the Empress. Before he can refuse her, Marcus awakens and supposedly kills Laia. He is named the winner of the Trials; Helene will be his Blood Shrike. Elias is ordered to be executed the following day. Before the order can take place, news arrives that the old Emperor has been killed.

Laia, still alive, is told to pretend to be dead and is carried out of the arena by an Augur. Cain arrives and tells her she has a great destiny, but first, she must meet with the Resistance. She learns first hand of Mazen’s deceit when he orders her killed now that she is of no use to him. Keenen saves her life and gives her the code words to say to secure passage on a boat. He will meet her when it docks in three weeks and the two of them will save her brother. Instead, Laia gives the code to Izzi so she can escape the Commandant’s wrath. Laia and Cook, who is a former resistance fighter, raid the school’s armory and make several incendiary devices. They want to create a distraction, not kill anyone. After the explosions, Laia is able to free Elias. They set off together to free her brother and fight the Empire.

Christian Beliefs


Other Belief Systems

In this world, the myths from the past are re-emerging. Jinns, ghuls, wraiths, efrits, augurs and other mystical and immortal creatures appear throughout the story. The ghuls torment Laia, imitating her brother’s voice and telling her of his pain. The efrits try to kill Helene and Elias.

Cook tells Laia a story about the past. How men became powerful when the efrits granted them the ability to heal, fight and tell the future. But when men tried to learn the powers of the jinn, the jinn denied them. The Scholar Emperor grew so angry he eventually created a weapon called the Star to imprison the jinn within a grove of trees. Only the king of the jinn, Nightbringer, survived. He made it his quest to destroy the Scholars and helped the Martials defeat them. Since a few Scholars survive, he roams the land to destroy them, enslaving the lesser spirits to help him in his goal.

Laia overhears the Commandant talking to someone she calls Nightbringer. Laia comments that the hours before dawn are when ghosts take their rest. To keep himself mentally prepared, Elias chants something his grandfather taught him, which includes phrases about the sword point being his priest and the dance of death being his prayer.

Marcus is described as staring at the Commandant as if she were a deity. Laia wears an amulet of her mother’s that she touches when she needs strength. Augurs are immortal and their ability to read minds and tell the future comes from being possessed by spirits. They use their powers to put hallucinations into Elias’ mind so he sees all the people he has killed. The apparitions talk with him and tell him the pain he caused their families. The Augurs also use their powers to kill the soldiers that Elias orders to only wound their friends in the Trial.

Authority Roles

Elias’ mother is brutal and unloving. She tells him the moment she found out she was pregnant, she hated him. She meant to kill him after his birth, but in a moment of weakness, she took him to one of the tribes. She tried to find them the following day, but they had gone. She tells Elias that his death will bring her peace. She is also cruel to her slaves — burning them, cutting their faces, taking out eyes — for the slightest mistakes.

Laia’s parents were loving, but cared more about the resistance than their children. Mazen, the leader of the Resistance, lies and manipulates Laia for his own benefit.


H---, d--n, * b--ch and b---tard are used as well as the phrase p--- off. A-- is used alone and with jack.

The Martials are a violent people, and Masks are the most violent soldiers of them all. A Mask holds a knife to Laia’s throat and threatens to rape her before taking her back to her grandparents’ house. He stabs her grandfather and slices her grandmother’s throat. Darin is beaten and dragged away.

The Commandant whips a young boy in Mask training to death for trying to desert. Elias pulls his knife on Cain, but does not use it. Marcus causes a fistfight when he kisses Helene without permission. Elias and others come to her defense, punching Marcus.

When Helene was younger, she was taken prisoner by a raiding party. She garroted three men and broke the necks of three others. The Commandant beats Laia for being seconds late with the woman’s tea. The Commandant carves her initial onto Laia’s chest for opening a letter. Laia is also whipped for disobedience. Marcus beats Laia, nearly killing her, when she fights against his advances. While she is unconscious, he begins to rape her, but is stopped.

There are many battles in which Elias and the other Masks fight. They kill each other and other soldiers with arrows, swords and daggers.


Elias begins to see Helene as a woman, rather than his best friend. He fantasizes about what it would be like to kiss her. Marcus forces Helene to kiss him. Elias kisses Laia for the first time as a ruse to convince his mother that he has been having sex with her so she will not get in trouble for being in the city.

Later, Laia kisses both Keenan and Elias. Although she is drawn to Keenan, it is Elias’ kiss that ignites her passion. Elias stops himself from doing anything more. It is stated often that most slave girls in Blackcliff have been victims of rape by the Mask students.

Marcus tries to rape Laia, but is stopped by Elias and Helene. Marcus and the other soldiers talk often of visiting brothels in the city.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol: Several characters drink wine. After the official Mask graduation ceremony, several students become intoxicated, appearing hung over the following day.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

14 and up


Sabaa Tahir






Record Label



Razor bill, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group


On Video

Year Published



Amazon’s Best YA novel of 2015; The Bustle #1 YA novel of 2016


We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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