An Ember in the Ashes
by Sabaa Tahir
Original Publication Date: April 28, 2015
Length: 453 pages
Obtained Via: Bought
Sold as standalone, potential series
View at the Traffic light:
Laia is a slave.
Elias is a soldier.
Neither is free.
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
Several bloggers I followed loved this book, but I’m going to be upfront and say that not only did I not get the hype, it’s been a long time since I remember having so many issues with a book that made me see red. After reading this book, I went on a frenzy of link-gathering, and trust me, I plan on sharing.
So, An Ember in the Ashes. It’s a pretty basic story, plot-wise. The two point of view characters are Laia and Elias. Laia is a Scholar, a group of people oppressed by the Martial Empire that overpowered the scholars before the start of the story. When the book begins, Laia’s brother is captured by the Martial Empire, and so she joins the Scholar resistance movement and goes undercover as a spy, in the position of a slave, for a powerful figure in the empire. Elias has just completed the Martial training school at the beginning of the book and is tasked to become one of four Aspirants, or potential emperors, that have to undergo a series of task to show themselves worthy to rule. Their paths, naturally, intersect, and from the there the story is supposedly born.
The plot was the best part of An Ember in the Ashes. It was compelling and kept me reading more than anything else. Laia and Elias lacked a certain spark that made me care about either of them, but I will grudgingly admit that they were complex characters with understandable motivations and desires. The beginning moments of romance between them felt lackluster, but I understood where they were coming from.
I’d say that there are love triangles, but none of the characters managed to convince me of their affections, so it mostly flew under my radar. Laia and Elias both toy with the idea of love interest besides each other(Elias more so–his is a pretty big deal, plot-wise. Laia’s is much smaller), but it mostly just left me thinking: “meh”.
HOWEVER, if I had just found this book blander than everyone else seemed to, I could deal with that. I would have been disappointed, but I’m not a stranger to being a black sheep. What really got me was the world-building. On a more innocent level, I just found it severely lacking. I would have never known this book was supposed to be based on an ancient Roman-esque world if I hadn’t seen that around the blogosphere. Hardly anything is ever described with detail. There are countless references to all these mythological creatures, and sometimes they show up on the page, but I even forced myself to read closely and I have NO idea what they look like.
There’s also a great deal of brutality in An Ember in the Ashes, *most* of which didn’t bother me. Students at the academy get killed for desertion, okay, I can buy that. But there came a point where the brutal scenes ceased making sense in the world. There’s a particular bloody scene that felt absolutely gratuitous, not because of the amount of violence but because of the reasoning behind it. It involves a forced situation by the people in charge, and the collateral damage of that violent situation made no sense. It may have felt shocking, sure, but it also felt illogical by the rules of that world. It was highly inconsistent. Yet, that still did not bother me as much of the casual treatment of rape and rape threats(trigger warning: from here on out I’m going to talk about this a lot).
Within the first fifty or so pages, I noticed female characters had been threatened with rape twice, so I started keeping a tally. By the end of the book, the female characters(mostly the Laia and a secondary female character) have been threatened with rape TEN times, including one instance in which a character actually does attempt to rape a female character, who is then saved by the hero.
I am not here for this, guys. That is also a conservative count–I only included instances in which characters were threatened with rape on the page, which does not include times when the rapes of other characters are referred to or when female characters reflect upon threats in the past. That is on-screen, right there.
“But Stormy,” You might say, “This book is based on an ancient Roman culture where rape threats would be a certainty.”
Were there Jinn in ancient Rome? Because those show up here. This book is not historical fantasy in the sense that is a fantasy which takes place during historical times in our world–it’s simply loosely based upon one civilization. If there can be mythological creatures, rape does not need to be included as a statement of fact. I am not saying that a fantasy world that includes rape or rape threats is always bad. There can be a way to do that properly. But its use in An Ember in the Ashes was excessive and callous. Yes, this world is brutal. But if these characters were male, they would have not received the same treatment. The world in this novel in one in which many, many people are powerless and are threatened by all kinds of things, but only the women are threatened with rape. It’s used often as an excuse to move the plot forward, and not only did I find that unacceptable, it’s shoddy world-building. If the only way a world can be shown to be so cruel is to constantly level rape threats against the women characters any time they exhibit agency male characters have, then the world is not defined enough.
Many people better at articulating this issue than me have spoken up about this, and I was serious when I said I did some link-gathering earlier. Maggie Stiefvater’s post about literary rape is an excellent one and a post I almost always start with while discussing this topic, and here are some more I recommend:
- Things I Will Not Do to my Characters. Ever. by Seanan McGuire(obviously, this is specific to a particular author’s work, but there’s some paragraphs that talk about this more generally)
- Angry About Rape by The Angry Black Woman(this one sums up my issue with rape threats as used in An Ember in the Ashes perfectly in a few lines: it’s also using rape instead of addressing it. When we see rape in media, we see it used as a way for men to exert their power over women, or used as a way to tell us something about a character, or used to drive a plot in a certain direction, or used to highlight vulnerability)
- Fantasy Writers: Stop Raping Your Women and Fantasy Writers: No, Really, Stop Raping Your Women! at the scribotarian
Most of the content in this novel may be threats and not actual assault(though there’s that too, at least an attempted one), I still found the way it was used so casually to be a large problem. A plot shouldn’t need to depend upon the constant stream of rape threats any of the female characters got(except the female villain), any time they got the slightest agency. Indeed, I’m not actually sure what most of the women in the world of An Ember in the Ashes do besides exist for rape fodder. Over the course of the novel, we get Laia’s grandmother, killed in the first chapter along with her grandfather, female slaves, a female villain, one female military recruit–because there can only be one at a time, apparently, for a reason that’s never explained or addressed–a few resistance members, and mentions of prostitutes. I wouldn’t mind the misogynistic society so much if it was ever addressed, but considering so much of the plot gets by on rape threats, that didn’t happen. If a sequel is acquired, I highly doubt I’ll be reading it.
An Ember in the Ashes has been hyped to be “the next Harry Potter” by some places, but I’ll stick to the wizards and skip all the rape threats leveled against female characters as a plot device. 1/5 cupcakes.