I don’t know what to do with this one. Generally I know when I’m reading a book whether I like it or hate it or, more rarely, if I’m hate-reading it, which is definitely a thing.
(Actually, before I go any further: trigger warning for rape. Don’t go anywhere near this book if you’re someone who needed that trigger warning.)
Here’s the problem with AN EMBER IN THE ASHES: it’s just well-written and interesting enough to keep you moving past the problematic parts, but problematic enough that you feel like you’ve wasted your time, or at least that you need a nice long shower, once you’ve done so. The basic scenario is pure YA; the world is split into two factions (shades of Divergent) for no clear reason, one of the factions is Really Evil, and there are two main characters on either side of the struggle and a second girl to provide a convenient love triangle. Oh, and two of the three mains have a chance to be the Emperor. Of the bad guys.
The villains are cartoonishly evil; the Commandant keeps killing and/or maiming all her slaves (while simultaneously complaining about how much they cost her) and the other bad guy is basically a more one-note version of Draco Malfoy crossed with all of Joffrey Baratheon’s ideas of progressive gender relations. Take that and toss in, oh, I dunno, thirty or forty rape references over the course of the 450-some-odd pages of the book.
It’s YA. It’s YA and it’s filled with rape references, but no actual rape. Ordinarily I would think “does not contain rape” would be a good thing about a book, but much like the Sansa dilemma in the Game of Thrones books, once you’ve referred to a character potentially being raped (and yes, of course she’s underage) enough times, the reader eventually can get very close to the point where they would like you to get on with it so that the book can fucking move on. If that sounds terrible, it’s because it is, but seriously: Sansa’s entire story in the GoT books for the last three thousand pages has been “Is this the book where Sansa gets raped?” and it’s at the point where that’s almost the sole reason for her existence in the narrative: to make you worry that she’s going to be raped. It’s exhausting. Anton Chekov is out there somewhere spinning in his grave and yelling at you.
This entire book is “Is this the chapter where one of the three young female protagonists get raped?” Because two of them are slaves, and it’s made clear that slaves should expect to be raped all the time, and the third is a badass soldier type who, by virtue of her martial prowess one would expect to be less likely to have to put up with that shit but catches just as many rape threats (from Draco Baratheon, over and over again) as anyone else– and, worse, the book basically puts her in a place by the end where it’s pretty clear that she’ll spend at least the next book being assaulted over and over and over again. The other two might be safe, but who knows.
“So why’d you finish it, then?” you might be asking. And I’ll make it worse: I finished this book in basically three big gulps, including one point where I sent out a Tweet that the next reference to rape would be the book’s last chance and then somehow made it ninety more pages (and to bed) before another one. (So, yeah. That’s about 1/4 of the book with no rape references. The other 3/4 is chock full of them.)
Thing is, Sabaa Tahir is actually a pretty damn good writer despite this one thing. Then again, so is George R.R. Martin, and I’m pretty much done with Game of Thrones too. So the book’s going to keep you reading until the rape references or the vaguely incoherent worldbuilding or the occasional odd character choices drive you away. On a page-to-page basis, though, it’s well-written, and it’s the type of book that makes you think it’s completely predictable and then keeps yanking the rug out.
I three-starred it on Goodreads; I feel like anything I race through like I did this book deserves at least three stars, but I could justify anything lower than that without much of a problem, and right now I sort of feel like moving it down to two. Because blech. But, somehow, blech where I’m still thinking of picking up the sequel.
See what I mean? I have no idea what to think of this damn book.