Mark Lawrence's Reviews > An Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
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Read 2 times. Last read April 23, 2019 to June 15, 2019.

It took me forever to read this book, and the reason is that it never really engaged me.

Tahir is a good writer and the story has much to recommend it. The story is delivered through two first person points of view in present tense – which is a bold and refreshing approach. I’m just not the reader it’s aimed at.

Ember in the Ashes is the first book I’ve read (all the way through) in decades that wears its YA colours so boldly. Many things that are complex in reality are made simple. The “factions” conceit from films/books like Insurgent is taken to a nation level here – the Martials with their brutish empire have enslaved the Scholars whose lands valued arts and learning. This is reminiscent of Eddings’ Belgariad from way back in the early 80s where each nation had a defining characteristic and everyone from within its borders demonstrated it at each opportunity. Relationships are also simplified with multiple instances of insta-love, fuelled by very small levels of interaction (which is not unrealistic for the age group).

Much of the action and plotting, whilst exciting, is very difficult to reconcile with reality. The fight scenes defy physics without the aid of magic. The highly secure battle school whose thousands of students stand guard and patrol regularly is essentially a come & go as you please place when the plot wants it to be. There’s a dangerous trail to it that somehow gives secret access … this made no sense to me, and repeated things of this nature hurt my ability to buy in.

Slaves who live harsh, regimented lives also seem to have plenty of leisure time to help the resistance and sabotage on an industrial scale.

Another sour point for me are the Augurs, seemingly the sole owners of magic in the book, who have near infinite power and foretell the future with startling accuracy. The plot is almost entirely driven by their seemingly random pronouncements that are never explained. Perhaps in a later book reasons are given but in this book it just felt arbitrary. For me, when you give endless power (including mind reading and future-sight) to arbitrary figures who drive the course of events then I lose interest – it becomes rather random.

My final issue is more amazement really. I am used to any mention of rape in "adult" fantasy rallying a chorus of condemnation. The author shouldn’t include it. The “it’s lazy” argument is rolled out along with a host of others. I had people specifically congratulate me on a book of mine where the female hero is thrown in a cell for torture for the fact she is never threatened with rape (that wasn’t a political decision - I just happened to think that having bits cut off instead was a nastier threat).

+Anyway+ this book is STUFFED FULL of threats of rape.

The book focuses on a male battle school where once in a generation a girl is admitted. The current girl is one of the two main characters’ best friend. The former girl is now the same main character’s mother and commandant of the school. It’s strongly hinted that BOTH have been raped.
The other main character is a young woman of around 17 and she is constantly under threat of rape in the book.

Here are the explicit threats / mentions of rape in the book that I noticed. I am sure I haven’t caught them all:

- But I think of the Mask’s cold regard, of the violence in his eyes. I’ve always loved dark-haired girls. He will rape me. Then he will kill me.

- Those of us not ordered to the border will be given city commands, where we’ll hunt down Resistance fighters or Mariner spies. We’ll be free, all right. Free to laud the Emperor. Free to rape and kill.

- She’ll disfigure you in the first few weeks, but you’ll thank her for it eventually—if the scarring’s bad enough, it’ll keep the older students from raping you too often.”

- The slaver nods a greeting to the guards stationed at the gates and pulls my chain as if I’m a dog. I shuffle after him. Rape...disfigurement...branding.

- Students don’t get much in the way of women at Blackcliff, unless they rape a slave or pay a whore

- You know what I’ve always wondered? If raping you would be like fighting you.

- And since students rape slaves all the time neither he nor I will be punished.
Shouldn’t have fought, he said, I’d have gone easy one you. But then I like a little spirit in my women.

- Did he rape you? No sir. Why would that be?


Note: I am not outraged. I think in the society described and the situations portrayed they are realistic threats. +BUT+ in adult fantasy, certainly in the places I hang out on the internet, I would expect a book like this to get relentless focus on the RAPE content in a great deal of the reviews and discussions. Many would say that it was the author’s choice to make a world where rape was an ever present threat, and why did they not choose to make a different world?

So I am surprised. And noting that surprise.

I can certainly see why this book did so well among the demographic it is aimed at though. It’s exciting, well written, and full of action with strong romance threads that cross-over for added complications.


The characters are so harshy treated that towards the end I was more engaged and rooting for them to get a break.



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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 23, 2019 – Started Reading
April 23, 2019 – Shelved
April 23, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
April 23, 2019 –
page 44
9.87% "This is really violent! Family members casually murdered in front of each other. people beaten to death, strong threats of sexual violence and torture...

If I had written this there would be a pitchfork army after me screaming about the evils of GRIMDARK! :D"
April 23, 2019 –
page 84
18.83% "Off to a strong & engaging start.

It wears its YA colours on its sleeve. The bad guys are the Martial nation, warlike and aggressive, and the persecuted/invaded guys are the Scholar nation into libraries and universities. It's that kind of simplification (as in Divergent with its Erudite and Dauntless etc echoing Slytherin and Gryfindor etc) is a hallmark. The actual content though can be violent as you like."
April 26, 2019 –
page 184
41.26% "Seriously this is really grimdark. The slaver advises the slave girl that her new owner will mutilate her but that will help reduce the number of times she's raped - and this is standard stuff in the crapsack world setting...

Not sure I like the whole chosen one + "I can read your mind & see the future" bit. Seems to put the story on rails.

The baddies in this have huge moustaches that they love to twist :D"
May 19, 2019 –
page 280
62.78% "The King of the Efreeti is Rowan Goldgale? Really?

I think I've met my YA limit on this one. I can see why many readers enjoyed it. But for me the target audience is perhaps just a bit too young. I will finish it but I've slowed right down."
June 15, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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Helen I remember the backlash against Jorg and yet reading this I didn’t compare the resulting reviews etc. I wonder at it now you’ve pointed it out. There must be a reason.


Mary S. R. That's something truly curious, I wonder why the rape was accepted in this book as apposed to PoT. I think it might have something to do with how here it was what the 'bad guys' did, characters the reader was supporting the MCs against and found them horrendously despicable, but with Jorg he was the MC and our anti-hero, so some people had trouble looking past it.

Still, there are many many other books where it's a thing of the villains but still prompts the readers to express outrage, as you pointed out. It's really worth thinking about, to see how Tahir managed to get away with it. It might come in handy.


Autumn I hope this was meant to invite discussion :) I love that this is a point of discussion, b/c rape has been overused and misused in much fiction... with that said, as far as this book goes, from my perspective, there is a historical reality (and sadly for too many it is still a current reality, like for the Rohinga in Myanmar) where rape has been used as a tool to control and torture populations under rule of another. I never felt like this book discussed rape as a part of the society for the purpose of being provocative, but because it would be a likely act that women and girls in this world would encounter. To me, it did not feel out of place in this genre as young adults are aware of human rights abuses too. There is a line between describing/representing what is wrong with our world in fiction to inspire action and change, and using it for shock value. It's a blurry, crooked line, but I think Ember didn't cross it...


message 4: by Brad (new)

Brad Kirk I think there is a double standard of when a male author writes about rape and when a female author writes about rape. It's lazy writing for a man and empowering for a woman.

Look at the vitriol leveled against GRRM, or yourself.


message 5: by Mary (last edited Jun 17, 2019 04:01AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mary S. R. Autumn wrote: "I never felt like this book discussed rape as a part of the society for the purpose of being provocative, but because it would be a likely act that women and girls in this world would encounter.
...There is a line between describing/representing what is wrong with our world in fiction to inspire action and change, and using it for shock value. It's a blurry, crooked line, but I think Ember didn't cross it..."


I don't know, I believe there are many books who use it for purposes other than shock value, and more for showing its effects and harms, but are still dashed upon the rocks.

I think it might have more to do with the way it is written, how and whether the sensitivity is considered—though I can't be sure about the specifics. I certainly plan to reread the series and pay more attention. But I completely agree that it's a delicate line.


Mary S. R. Brad wrote: "I think there is a double standard of when a male author writes about rape and when a female author writes about rape. It's lazy writing for a man and empowering for a woman."

I had not thought of that! Now that I consider it, I feel like there's some truth to your point. Which is disturbing, as such judgment feels wrong.


Autumn Mary S.R wrote: I don't know, I believe there are many books who use it for purposes other than shock value, and more for showing its effects and harms, but are still dashed upon the rocks.

Agreed. I know there are multiple other readers out there that felt this book went too far with a constant threat of rape and violence... but it makes me thankful that we are in a time when it is discussed, and not ignored - that those who are triggered can feel safe to come forward and share their concerns. I just hope that we can continue to evolve without eating our own, and sacrificing our artists who helped get us here.


Mary S. R. @Autumn, agreed!


One-Edgy-Anti-Hero I agree with everything in this review.
Regarding the rape I thought the same thing while reading this since I've seen so many complaints with ASOIAF yet seemingly fewer with this. I do wonder if its a double standard thing?


Sarah (A French Girl) I'm thinking it is. But to be honest, I think we all got to admit that a lot of criticism in books about sexism and rape are often overrated. Sometimes, I feel people complain just because they can or because they feel they need to complain. Also, there's no doubt in my mind, that if a female author wrote grimdark with rape mention, she would not be slammed.

I would recommend authors to write books the way they want to and not listen to readers. These days readers are more interested in phony activism and can create drama over nothing.


Sarah (A French Girl) Also, at the end of the day, this is just a book not real life so rape mention don't threaten you. And if it "triggers" you then in that case, just don't read the book. Nobody is forcing you to read on. The book is in your hand and you can choose to close it anytime *you* feel uncomfortable. An author shouldn't change how he imagined his world because it supposedly offend *your* sensitivity. This is policing someone's work, not creating a more safe world.

Honestly, I have seen people who went through truly traumatic experience such as refugee etc and none of them are being "triggered". Like these days I see trigger warning for anything and everything and it's ridiculous. How can you read a fantasy book and need to be warned that that there is violence in it? I see triggers for violence, self-harm, animal violence, eating disorder etc...and I'm like how do you cope with real life?

Lastly, if you live in the West, your life compared to the rest of the world is fine. You have more opportunity than anybody else. If you're a woman, you are NOT a second class citizen in society. You are free to choose your career, to receive an education, who you want to marry, to have or not have children and to go out on your own however you want, so please stop with accusation of sexism or that the patriarchy needs to be dismantled.


Sarah (A French Girl) Oh, I forgot, but that was a great review Mark. It was very detailed and I liked your remarks. Personally, I really enjoyed this book. However, I can see why it wouldn't interest a different demographic.


Courtney After sifting through dozens of reviews, finally found yours and it is a huge relief. I thought I’d lost my damn mind cause everybody loved it?!


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