Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Set in a terrifyingly brutal Rome-like world, An Ember in the Ashes is an epic fantasy debut about an orphan fighting for her family and a soldier fighting for his freedom. It’s a story that’s literally burning to be told.

LAIA is a Scholar living under the iron-fisted rule of the Martial Empire. When her brother is arrested for treason, Laia goes undercover as a slave at the empire’s greatest military academy in exchange for assistance from rebel Scholars who claim that they will help to save her brother from execution.

ELIAS is the academy’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias is considering deserting the military, but before he can, he’s ordered to participate in a ruthless contest to choose the next Martial emperor.

When Laia and Elias’s paths cross at the academy, they find that their destinies are more intertwined than either could have imagined and that their choices will change the future of the empire itself.

Trigger Warning: Rape and sexual assault

Minor spoilers.

I have to start this review by saying that I rarely write overtly negative reviews. I'm aware that something I didn't like someone else may love, and try to frame it in as much of an objective lens as I can. I don't intend to start a trend of bad reviews on this blog, but in some cases I find something I feel so strongly about that I can't ignore it. A positive review is not something I can do with this book. I went into this book with open, even high expectations. I came out feeling numb and horrified.

Now, before I go further I feel honor bound to say that there were elements of this book that I enjoyed. The world building is very good, and the characters were very whole people, fully drawn, and the integrated mythological system was lovely. However, these elements were not enough to overcome the central problems.

Barely fifteen pages into the book, the central female character--Laia--encounters a character that makes it clear that it is not only his intention but his right to rape her if he chooses. Laia escapes from this encounter unharmed, but from there the threat of rape is haze that clouds over almost every chapter of the book.

As Laia ventures into a dangerous situation to save her brother, it is suggested that the permanent scarring she might endure will keep her from being raped less often. In this world, the fact that she will be raped is not a worry, it is a certainty, and Laia isn't the only one with reason to be afraid.

The secondary female character, Helen, is also threatened. Now, Helen is easily one of the most badass female characters I've encountered in recent memory. She's one of the only females at an elite and brutal military academy, and she's at the top of her class. However, one of Helen's classmates regularly threatens to rape her. In fact, she's threatened by this character so much it almost feels like that every time she steps onto the page a threat of some kind is hurled at her.

There's also an attempted sexual assault on Laia later in the book, where she's rescued in the nick of time. In essence the idea and reality of rape haunts this book in either word or deed or thought on almost every page. By the time I finished the book, I was utterly numb.

Now, in case you're wondering, I am not opposed to rape in fantasy novels. I recently read Alcestis by Katherine Beutner and reread Fire by Kristin Cashore. Both of the protagonists of those novels were threatened with rape. Both were afraid for their bodies at some point in the book. Neither of them came close to feeling that Ember elicited from me. The differences between these two experiences is that while Alcestis and Fire acknowledge the fact that rape exists and that it is a reality of the world the characters live in, it is never used for the sake of advancing the plot, which is exactly how it is used in Ember.

The threats that Helen receives serve two purposes: firstly, to make us understand how evil and brutal the character that threatened her (Marcus) is; secondly, so that Elias has a reason to be concerned and protective about Helen while doubly hating Marcus. The threats that Laia receives are repeatedly used to remind the reader of just how vulnerable she is, and how dangerous/horrible the conditions are that she's living in. In addition, the sexual assault attempted on Laia (Carried out by Marcus, interrupted by Elias) repeats all of these things about the three characters without being in the plot for any significant reason.

Furthermore, it serves to show us how in an inhumane world, Elias is the humane one. While I said I'm not opposed to rape used in a sensitive way, I'm am opposed to it being used to further the story and moral fiber of a male character while at the expense of a female character, which is essentially what this is. (This exact situation just occurred on Game of Thrones and people were outraged.)

With all this in play, it keeps surprising me how much attention this book is getting. Equally surprising is how much attention it is getting without anyone talking about these very problematic elements. While no rape occurs in this book, the use of threats and assault is gratuitous. The fact that no one is talking about it proves that there is a larger issue at stake here: that using rape as a way to define female characters is still an acceptable and praise-able practice.

I am aware that people are going to disagree with me, and that's fine. My recommendation is that if you read this book, be aware of it's potentially triggering content. Read with care. Be aware of the fact that women are used gratuitously, and don't be afraid to be vocal about your opinion--whatever it is--in the face of this book's enormous level of praise.

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