It’s been a while since I was truly excited about a young adult book, in part because I haven’t read very many in the past year or two. There was a stretch of time when every new book was reminding me of The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars. However, when a book is independently recommended to me by two well-read lady friends, I take notice. That book is An Ember in the Ashes.
Young adult, like every literary genre, is lacking in diversity. This applies to both authors and character representation. So it’s wonderful to see a Pakistani-American author receiving well-deserved recognition for this book. In An Ember in the Ashes, you will find a society based on the Roman Empire in a desert climate with a variety of characters who aren’t white (!). Tahir builds an immersive world with a strict class system, slavery, and soldiers who are trained from childhood. The stakes are high for characters in every social sphere.
The narration is split between Laia and Elias. Laia was born into the oppressed Scholar class. When her brother is arrested for suspected collaboration with the Resistance, she is forced to become a slave in her attempt to save him. Laia isn’t the typical heroine found in fantasy adventure stories. She doesn’t start out as tough, capable, and fearless, but circumstances push her to challenge her fears. Most importantly, her understanding of herself and her family evolves as she faces these trials. Hers is a classic coming-of-age journey.
On the other hand, Elias has been trained since boyhood to join the ranks of the Empire’s most lethal assassins. Although Elias holds a privileged position, his ambiguous parentage and nontraditional upbringing give him an outsider’s perspective. He can’t speak out against the brutality of the Empire without risking death. Tahir is highly successful at bringing out the contradictions and messy emotions in this character as well. Elias objects to the role he’s expected to play, but he also loves the comrades with whom he grew up.
My friend Emmie and I were discussing how authors sometimes struggle to continue a series after a promising start. She suggested that those authors didn’t have a specific idea of where they were headed when the began the series. In addition, I think that the pressure to make each book more epic and action-packed sometimes causes the emotional threads of the story to get buried. Sabaa Tahir has planned four books for this series. I will be reading A Torch Against the Night soon and hope to love it nearly as much as An Ember in the Ashes. Even if she falls into some of the fantasy series traps, she’s a young writer with tons of potential for the future. I look forward to following her career!
Margaret Atwood has long been one of my favorite contemporary authors, and The Handmaid’s Tale was the first of her books that I ever read. As a seventeen-year-old budding feminist, Atwood’s cautionary tale had a lasting impact on me, with certain scenes still etched in my memory. This week saw the release of the first three episodes of the Hulu adaptation starring Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist nightmare where, as a response to widespread inferility, the government has taken control of women’s bodies. Fertile women are forcibly trained by religious leaders and assigned as handmaids to high-status couples who have been unable to conceive. It’s sex slavery hiding behind religious justification. I hope that anyone would be horrified by imagining this reality, but it’s particularly frightening as a woman to imagine what your life would be if your worth was determined entirely by your husband or ability to procreate.
Elisabeth Moss plays Offred (“of Fred”), a handmaid whose daughter was taken and husband shot as they tried to escape the country. The series opens with their flight through the woods, pursued by armed men. Being hunted like an animal anticipates Offred’s new life, in which she is essentially breeding stock. Anyone familiar with Mad Men knows that Elisabeth Moss has the ability to project silent agony and repressed rage. This role gives her ample opportunities for both. I wasn’t initially sure about her decision to deliver the voiceover in a hoarse whisper, but it fits the tone of repression that permeates the story.
As a series, The Handmaid’s Tale is strongly cinematic. Light and shadows are both used in extremes, from lens flares to dark figures silhouetted against a window. A culture of extremity is also reflected in the handmaids’ uniform of a long red dress and white bonnet. When out in public, oversized wings are added to the bonnet to obscure their faces. Pop music is inserted sparingly at climatic moments. Although I found the music conspicuous in the first episode, the fact that it’s incongruous with the world being shown makes it effectively jarring. After all, speculative or dystopian fiction aims to show us how aspects of an imagined society bear a disquieting resemblance to our reality.
Although watching The Handmaid’s Tale is a fairly joyless experience, I believe that it’s a valuable one. Margaret Atwood externalizes the Madonna-whore complex by creating a society in which women are explicitly categorized as virtuous wives or sexual handmaids. (There are also domestic servant “Marthas” and execution or exile.) This may seem like an impossible idea, but the aspects of this story exist around the world in different forms. Even in relatively liberated societies, women feel the opposing pressures to be sexy but not slutty, a good girl but not a prude. In a tumultuous time, I appreciate that creators are reminding us about what has been, what still is, and what we must be vigilant to prevent.
Last week I took a quick trip to Florida for some furry friend therapy.
Just what the doctor ordered.