An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (2015)
The idea of an oppressed underclass in a violent society and one or two teenagers trying to break free seems familiar for a reason. When you add in the Trials, in which Elias and four other recent graduates must compete to the death to become the new Emperor, it conjures comparisons with several other teen dystopias. Since I'm already going down this road, I'll start with the things I didn't like about the book (in order from least to most bothersome) and then move on to what I liked.
Laia's devotion to her brother is what the whole story hinges on and like in so many other books, this deep familial love drives our heroine to risk her own life again and again. I'm honestly never totally convinced by this and - here especially - she has so little chance of surviving and even so it's far from certain that her efforts will save her brother anyhow. It's also true that Laia had nothing left to lose, so I'm willing to overlook this for the most part.
Speaking of the risks, the Commandant is supposed to be so ruthless and cruel that slaves rarely lasted more than a week or so with her. Initially this showed in her treatment of Laia, but then it started feeling like the Commandant let a lot go. Had there been some explanation, like maybe the Commandant being sick of having to train new slaves and making a decision to let up a bit, this would have made more sense. As it was, it's obvious that Laia just needed to survive in order for the book to continue.
I've identified the line of dialogue that I dislike the most in the world, and which appears in far too many books including this one. That line is: "It's not like that." When Elias defends the slave Laia, his best friend Helene accuses him of being sexually involved with Laia. This is not true, yet instead of saying, "No, actually I just feel bad for her because she's a slave," which would be the truth, he says "It's not like that." Why is this line always used in books? It's so close to an admission of guilt, it's more like trying to reframe it. It would be like saying, "Yes, I slept with her but not just for a cheap thrill like you think." It's weak and lame, and I've never heard anyone say it in real life.
Those are very specific criticisms, but what I liked about the book is much more general. I mentioned earlier that the setting was inspired by ancient Rome, and it definitely had that feel about it in terms of its place in history. I liked this historic dystopia feel, void of any kind of technology, and felt like I was transported to a very different place than I had ever been before.
Despite some of the plot holes, the story really kept me going and I enjoyed it a lot while I was reading it. I wanted to pick the book up at every opportunity and sit for hours reading to find out what happened next. I really didn't know where it was going to go, and I was surprised many times.
One specific thing that I can pinpoint that I liked was the character of Helene. She and Elias were super close and there was a bit of sexual tension happening, which was especially awkward since they had been such good friends for so long. But what I liked was that Helene was portrayed realistically as part of their class in that she wasn't sympathetic to the Scholar class, including Laia. Elias really was pretty alone in his views, which makes his character more special, and Helene was a complicated, believable character who I still admired quite a bit. I should mention that she is the only female student at the school, so she's not in an easy position. She is super smart and strong, but is still a product of her society in some ways.
I probably wouldn't have picked this up on my own but we chose it for my book group and I did really enjoy the time I spent reading it. My criticisms are enough that I won't give it high ratings and I'm not likely to continue the series (did I mention it's the first in a series? Of course it is.) But I spent a few enjoyable days getting lost in the story and in this fascinating, cruel world.
An Ember in the Ashes is a fantasy and thus fulfills another square for Winter Bingo. I unfortunately have no series finales or works in translation on my reading horizon, so this fantasy square isn't actually helping me much.