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Literature / An Ember in the Ashes

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"You are an ember in the ashes, Elias Veturius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it."
— Cain

An Ember in the Ashes is a YA novel written by Sabaa Tahir, set in a world loosely based on Ancient Rome. Five hundred years ago, the Martials, a Proud Warrior Race, conquered the Scholars, a peaceful people. The Scholars have only known suffering and slavery at the hands of the Martial Empire and its ruling class. When Laia, a Scholar girl, witnesses her brother being captured by Martials, she turns to the Resistance, who offers her a deal: spy for them in the Empire's most brutal training academy, Blackcliff, and they will rescue her brother.

Elias Veturius is Blackcliff's finest soldier, and also its most unwilling. Before he can desert, he is summoned to participate in the Trials, a series of life-and-death ordeals to crown the new Emperor and his lieutenant. There, he meets Laia, and as they struggle to survive the brutality around them, their choices have the power to shape the fate of the Empire. Expect plenty of political and supernatural intrigue.


A second book, A Torch Against the Night was released in August 2016, followed by a third book, The Reaper at the Gates, in June 2018. A prequel trilogy of Graphic Novels began with A Thief Among the Trees in July 2020. The fourth and final book, Sky Beyond the Storm, was released in December 2020. Movie rights have been optioned by Paramount Pictures.

Provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Helene, her class's only female recruit.
    Elias: Helene might be the only girl here, but there's a reason she's ranked third in our class. It's the same reason that bullies learned early on to leave her alone. She's clever, swift, and ruthless.
  • An Offer You Can't Refuse: Several instances of it.
    • As stated above, the Resistance offers one to Laia. It's the only way to save her sole remaining family member. Too bad they don't uphold their end of the deal
    • Cain promises Elias "freedom of body and soul" if he participates in the Trials.
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    • Half this trope, half You Can't Fight Fate: the Augurs inform Helene that Elias's life is in danger and that if she swears to give her loyalty to whoever is named Emperor, he'll be saved.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: At the end of the second book, Marcus forces Helene's younger sister Livia to marry him.
  • Arch-Enemy: Marcus to Helene and Elias.
  • Beautiful Slave Girl: Laia. It's not an asset when she's at a place like Blackcliff.
  • Big Bad: Keris Veturia, the Commandant of Blackcliff, and also Elias's hateful mother. She doesn't have a benevolent bone in her body, as Laia soon discovers.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: It turns out the Commandant has been working with the Nightbringer to interfere with the Trials and assassinate the current Emperor.
  • Bonding over Missing Parents: Keenan and Laia.
  • Break the Cutie: It’d actually be easier to name everyone who isn’t broken in this series.
  • Childhood Friends: Elias and Helene, from the very beginning of their training at Blackcliff.
  • The Dragon: Marcus, Elias' and Helene's most hated enemy, even before the Trials. Second only to Elias, he's a dangerous foe with no qualms about fighting dirty.
    Elias: "Telling Marcus not to cheat is like telling him not to breathe."
    • Unfortunately for everyone, he gets promoted to Emperor before the book's end.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Laia invokes this on behalf of her parents' achievements to get the Resistance to help her.
    • Marcus get’s really bad about this after he becomes Emperor.
  • A Death in the Limelight: Keris's death is from her perspective.
  • Empathic Healer: This is how Helene's healing works. When she heals Cook she takes a less severe version of the wound onto herself, but it still causes her some pain and bleeding.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Kitchen-Girl, Cook, and the other slaves in the Commandant's household. Deliberately invoked by the Commandant; she punishes them if they use their names.
    • The Blood Shrike drops their real name when they're appointed.
  • Evil Mentor: The Commandant to Marcus and Zak. She teaches them how to shield their minds against the augurs so that they can cheat undetected in the Trials.
  • Facial Horror: Cook's face was left horribly scarred and disfigured by the Commandant.
  • Fake-Out Make-Out: Elias springs one on Laia to provide an excuse for where she's been, making it look like he'd waylaid her for his own amusement so that the Commandant will not have a reason to punish her.
  • Freudian Excuse: Stretched as thinly as possible in the Commandants case. She’s was the best in her class, as good a warrior as any man, yet her father made her son his heir. Though that might also be because even he is horrified by her brutality and cruelty.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Resistance leader Mazen is reluctant to help Laia rescue her brother and doublecrosses her at the end. Only Keenan's interference prevented her death.
  • Heroic Vow: After having to kill his friends in the third Trial, Elias vows to not let Laia die.
  • Involuntary Battle to the Death: In the third round of the Trials, Helene's platoon and Elias' platoon have to fight each other to the death until either of their leaders kills the other.
  • Jerkass Woobie: Even Elias feels bad for Marcus when Marcus had to kill his twin brother during the third Trial.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Keenan initially tried to steal Laia's amulet, wanted her to stay out of the Resistance, and expressed doubt she would succeed at the mission. Later it's revealed he tried to keep her out of it as repayment to her father, who saved his life. He also arranges her escape from the Resistance and Blackcliff, and promises to help her rescue her brother.
    Keenan: I shouldn't have said that. But I didn't want to risk the men. Or you.
    Laia: Me? You threatened to shove me into a crypt five seconds after you met me.
    Keenan: I'm sorry about that. I was a... a..."
    Laia: Jackass?
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: However, Keenan proves himself to really be this in the second book, having been The Nightbringer in disguise who aimed to manipulate Laia into loving him, so as he could be granted her Orphan's Plot Trinket (as it must be freely given).
  • La Résistance: Laia's parents were the greatest leaders the Resistance ever had. Now it's split into factions and got manipulated by the Commandant.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father:
    • Avitas Harper is revealed to be Elias’ half-brother through their father.
    • Cook is actually Mirra, the Lioness, Laia’s mother.
  • The Mole: The Commandant has Keenan spy on the Resistance for her.
  • The Patriarch: Quin Veturius, the 77-year-old leader of Gens Veturia, the Empire's oldest house. Also a Cool Old Guy to Elias. Possibly a somewhat Stay in the Kitchen attitude, as he never took pride in his daughter's (the Commandant's) accomplishments like he does Elias', and he even named Elias his heir instead of her, though Elias also observes that even Quin disapproves of his daughter's general cruelty,
  • Recruited from the Gutter: Keenan, at the tender age of six. No wonder he's the Resistance's second-in-command.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: One of the augurs helps Laia fake her death. Elias, Cook, and Izzi are astounded to see her alive.
  • Sadistic Choice: In the fourth Trial, Elias has one three choices: kill Laia himself and be emperor; let Helene kill Laia, and be granted freedom from the empire; or not let anyone kill her at the expense of his own life.
  • Secretly Dying: Zig-zagged. After being poisoned by the Commandant, Elias realizes he has five or six months to live. He tries to keep the truth from Laia for as long as possible, but it doesn’t last. And their allies are able to figure it out on their own.
  • Ship Sinking: Of the Love Dodecahedron, both Elias/Helene and Keenan/Laia have been sunk; the former because Elias only thinks of her as a friend, the latter because he was only ever manipulating her and she was lonely.
  • Ship Tease:
    • Book 1 sets up a potential Love Dodecahedron by offering tease between Elias/Laia, Elias/Helene, and Keenan/Laia.
    • Book 3 adds a lot for Helene and her Number Two, Avitas Harper.
  • Sickbed Slaying: Laia thinks Helene will do this to her as she's dying from Marcus's assault, but she heals her instead.
  • Slave Race: The Scholars. They were the world's mecca of literature and the arts before the Martials subjugated them.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Helene is the only girl at Blackcliff. The augurs pick one female recruit per generation, for reasons unknown.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Keenan. Often described as cold in expression and demeanor, he eventually warms up to Laia and falls in love with her.
  • Survivor's Guilt: Elias' friends Tristas, Leander, Demetrius, and Ennis died during the Third Trial because he couldn't bring himself to kill Helene in time to save them.
  • Switching P.O.V.: In the first book, the narration alternates between Laia's and Elias's perspective. The second book adds Helene as another POV character.
  • Targeted Human Sacrifice: The winner of the last Trial is the one who kills Laia first. It gets complicated because Elias is NOT willing to let her die, even at the cost of his life.
  • Training from Hell: Elias and the other recruits' lives at Blackcliff. It's like boot camp. Four years in preliminary training. Then four more years of surviving in the wilderness. Six more years of training at Blackcliff until graduation. Many of them die, especially during the wilderness survival stage.
  • Title Drop: Cain is particularly fond of doing this.
  • Unlucky Childhood Friend: Helene to Elias. She is not pleased when she sees his growing affection for Laia.
  • Unreliable Narrator: In-universe. The Commandant claimed she left Elias in a Tribesman tent, safe for someone to find him. However, Mamie Rila claims he was straight up left for dead in the Tribal desert. Elias recognizes the inconsistency between the two stories. But whether or not one of them were outright lying or if there was a third party manipulation involved is unknown.
  • When He Smiles: Keenan. It takes years off his face, according to Laia.
  • Whip It Good: The Commandant's favorite weapon is a whip.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Commandant had no qualms about ordering a ten-year-old to be whipped to death for desertion or gouging a five-year-old's eye out to punish her surrogate mother.