Okay, so this won’t be a proper book review, but is more of a meditation on two books with similar audiences, similar blurbs, but very different impacts on this particular reader. Both Skin by Ilka Tampke and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir were compared to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire though, I suppose, in all fairness the comparison is actually to the HBO adaptation of his books. The comparison is fitting for both books, but for very different reasons.
For Skin it comes down to sex. Plain and simple. There is a lot of sex in Tampke’s book, and none of it presents sex in a good light. It is animalistic and bestial with nothing setting human sex apart from animal sex–she seems to make the mistake that Tolkien witnessed in the 1930s and described in one of the endnotes of his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’: when it comes to sex in Tampke’s novel, humans are presented not only as animals–which is scientifically correct–but as only animals. There’s nothing good or beautiful about sex in her portrayal. It’s just acting on animal instincts. There’s a lot more about her book that makes me uncomfortable, and it mirrors Martin’s work in those ways too, but it is in the presentation of sex that she follows Martin most closely, and that is the biggest shortcoming of Skin.
If we turn our attention to Tahir’s novel, we get a world that is absolutely brutal. Her main characters suffer some truly horrendous things, and also do some truly horrendous things, and so it is the violence in her world that is most strongly reminiscent of Martin’s Westeros. But what she does with violence is what sets her apart. Like in Martin’s work, no character (except of course the two PoV characters–this is YA fiction after all) is truly safe, and the peril makes the danger real. Tahir’s characters are painted in varying shades of grey, so that even the ‘good guys’ can’t be trusted and the ‘bad guys’ have truly redeeming qualities. With that said, though their morals and personal choices reveal them as decidedly grey, the characters (even the side characters) are drawn with enough color and flavor that their peril and suffering become truly powerful events, not just for the characters who know them but the reader vicariously experiencing all this. There is one scene in particular that hit me like a punch in the kidneys. It left me aching for the characters and the trauma they had experienced, which is just as it should be. Tahir doesn’t shy away from violence, but neither does she revel in it. She shows, so very clearly, that violence has consequences, and those consequences are psychological and spiritual just as much as they are physical. Violence may be the only adequate pathway at times, but that doesn’t mean it should be or can be chosen lightly, and it certainly doesn’t remove the consequences of violent actions. In fact, you might say that it is one, just one, past violent action that is the driving force behind the entire plot, and it’s not the surface conflict that is introduced on page one. This novel introduces a world with depth and history, just like Martin’s, but there is still room for hope–and even indications that the hoped for end will become reality one day.
Comparing fantasy books to A Song of Ice and Fire is all the rage right now, because for the first time in a long time, that comparison may draw in readers who wouldn’t have considered themselves interested in fantasy before picking up Martin’s books or watching HBO’s adaptation. And in both cases, the comparison will not wholly disappoint readers. One of them will appease readers seeking titillation, but the other is reminiscent of the best parts of Martin’s epic, and in those particular ways it may even surpass them.