My rating: 5 of 5 stars
An Ember in the Ashes is like a punch to the gut, in the way that only a good book can be. With stellar worldbuilding that doesn't overpower you, actual visible character development, and a compelling plot that takes preexisting mythology and makes it new, this book is one of the only ones I'll allow to be compared to Game of Thrones in any capacity.
One of the problems I notice in YA in particular, specifically with epic fantasy, is that authors make the mistake of sugarcoating the circumstances. They'll tell you the world is cruel and difficult, but never actually give representation to those hardships, or at least will somehow allow the protagonists to be spared from such a fate. This is not the case here. Before the first third of the book is through, you have the main protagonist lose her entire family, be whipped, slapped, sexually harassed, and branded. This isn't to say that I enjoyed Laia's pain; she is a precious cinnamon roll, and her pain is my pain.
Laia is a character some people may term as "weak" or "cowardly," but I disagree. Or if I'm wrong, I'll at least say that Sabaa Tahir managed to create a character that has those typically negative traits, but still create a compelling and sympathetic heroine. I was rooting for her the entire time, and I was so glad to see her development, both regarding her issues of self and her sense of strength.
I loved Elias as well. The poor thing only knew six years of happiness, and yet he still fights every day to hold on to the humanity his mother and his government is trying to strip from him. Even his best friend doesn't think he's entirely right in opposing the status quo (which was why I never fully liked Helene; i can recognize if you have genuine loyalty in something because you believe it to be the right thing, but her dismissal of slaves' humanity/worth as human beings kind of dashed any hope of me caring about Helene's happiness).
The romance is probably the only (or one of the few) cases of "insta-love" that is handled well and is believable. Both of them know that attraction doesn't mean they can necessarily be together, and that there's far more going on than them liking each other. It reminded me of The Winner's Curse, in that sense. I cannot wait to see the next installment. If it's anything like I hope (as Sarah J Maas has spoiled me to expect everywhere else), we'll get bigger glimpses of the world, the pair's relationship (or lack of one) will get tested, and fabulous adventures will ensue. And hopefully the Commandant will die, because COME ON.