“‘Tell them we died like heroes!’ [he] called. Then he pointed his drawn sword at the advancing wolves. ‘Tell them we did our duty!’ A shout from defiant rabbits echoed through the forest. ‘Let fly!’ [He] cried as the operators released the last blastarrows to fly at the attacking pack. ‘Tell them,’ he whispered to himself just before the explosion, ‘that we were brave.’”
This achingly beautiful book is about battle and sacrifice and the courage that is requisite in the face of true evil. It is also about raising the banner high and clinging to hope and that which is good when there is so much reason to despair. Ember Rising by S. D. Smith is the third book in the main Green Ember series, and is 114 pages longer than Ember Falls at 445 pages. And none of those pages are wasted.
“Distantly, she remembered the cause and the reasons she had exchanged her life . . . through her anguish, she weighed the cost and settled in her heart that it was worth it.”
In this review, I will assume that readers are familiar with the first two books in the series, but I will work to avoid spoilers (both from the first two books and this one) in case parents are reading these to determine whether or not the series will be a good fit for their readers.
In this third book, it is only a week after the devastating tragedy of the second book. But, as one of our favorite characters says, that week feels like a lifetime ago. Because war is underway, the rabbits are scattered between several locations. I found it incredibly helpful to refer to the maps in the front of the book as they were traveling. By separating the characters from each other, Smith allows us to meet more delightful characters as well as the chance to see different (and fascinating) settings. The mountain prison city of Akolan feels very different from the woods of First Warren.
“I remembered, with deep fondness, how it felt to be in our old place in its day. The laughter, the music, and the families all together. Regulars mixed in with travelers, from younglings to the oldest around. It was humming with life. So, to help recapture the imagination of the community, and to honor my own family legacy, I created the Citadel of Dreams. We snatch rabbits, yes. We take them from their lives of bleak indignities, and we bring them to an inn of life and light. We bring them here to remind them of what we had, and what we might have again.”
As wolf attacks are a constant reality for the rabbits of Harbone Citadel, and rabbits of First Warren are living like slaves in a totalitarian regime, the rabbits of Akolan are living through special horrors in the prison state bordering Morbin’s lair, and the rabbits of Terralain dispute the succession to the throne. Everywhere the rabbits look, evil appears to be winning. I will explain the horrors of Akolan below, but what matters most is that everywhere that evil is having its hour, a growing number of rabbit-kind are banding together in resistance, and they are sowing the seeds of the victory that will surely come. In the middle of First Warren, a band of rabbits is living in the underground Citadel of Dreams where rabbits, like those of Cloud Mountain, are fighting back with song and dance as much as with bows and arrows.
“…there is no cost too high for doing what is right and no retribution great enough for doing what is wrong. To believe otherwise is to surrender our liberty to lies . . . we are small but determined. We are hard-pressed but persistent. We are wounded, yet we live. We are humble but hopeful. And our hope is ignited by the sight of you . . .”
This book might be the most interesting of the series. Many things are all happening in symphony, and all of them keep readers on the edge of their seats. As the monarch is working to organize support from the lords of each citadel, several characters are breaking into First Warren to fight behind enemy lines, and a beloved character has been imprisoned in Akolan who discovers an incredible resistance movement that is on the cusp of significant action. This story delights us with lots of meaningful action, some wonderful new characters, and some truly excellent heroics. But, it also challenges us with some dark and disturbing (but necessary) storylines.
As always, Smith loves his readers and, while he is unafraid of properly conveying the wickedness of the other side, he does it gracefully. I think Smith is courageous for writing these hard things, and I think the story is richer because of them. That said, I think some may wish to know what these things are so they can properly discern the best time and way in which to share this book with their readers. I will try to be just general enough to avoid spoilers.
“He’s been so carefully cultivated by the dogmatists in the Sixth District . . . we tried to subtly counter what was happening. But he’s one of them.”
In Akolan, the rabbit younglings are taken from their homes and enrolled in a regime school where they are immersed in the rhetoric of the traitors. They are conditioned to dismiss the authority of their parents and to adopt the authority of the rabbits who have sided with the Lords of Prey. They stay at school for about ten days, return home for a few days, and then return to school. When they are home, they call their parents by their first names, they “educate” their families on how things should be, and they report on their parents whenever they witness anything that deviates from their training. Clearly, this should remind us of the schools in Russia during the last century and the schools in Germany leading up to World War II.
Disregard for life
“If they can be healed and put back to assigned jobs,” he said casually, “then that’s a good work. But we must protect our resources, and too many rabbits mean depleted resources.”
This quote is from a child to an adult who is a doctor. The child is repeating what he learned at school about the value of life. Only those rabbits who are productive members of the state should be permitted to draw resources like food and shelter. And, those members who are not productive should be exterminated. It is unclear if the child knows that that means the culled rabbits will become food for the Lords of Prey.
“He reached for the tongs and took up the blazing orange rod. She felt the heat as he brought the blazing hot metal close to her face. ‘My work is this!’ he said, bringing the orange rod down on her arm.”
All rabbits in Akolan must wear a preymark (a red bandana around their necks) which identifies them as outwallers (prisoners) as well as a brand (like cattle). This is the only scene in which a rabbit is branded, and it is just a few lines like this, but it is disturbing.
Rabbits for the Table
“They end on Morbin’s table, as food for his dark rites . . . I am sorry to tell you this, and there’s much more I could say. I never think of betraying the hope of the Mended Wood, where such things shall not be so. I never have, and I never will. I’d rather die than take sides with those whose cause is so drenched in innocent blood. And I am heartbroken that any rabbit can turn a blind eye to it.”
This has to be the most awful and tragic part of the book. When several of our heroes learn about it, they become nauseated and we feel the same way. Every parent knows that Morbin and his Lords of Prey will have a regular supply of youngling rabbits to feast on. Parents know that when their children go to school and become indoctrinated against the parent it is done in part to limit the parent’s ability to help their child resist the torture that might come. Every parent also knows that if they themselves do not behave in full compliance with all of the protocols, their child will likely be singled out to be a “special” rabbit. Once a youngling has been chosen, they are told they are being rewarded and are going on a special adventure. For the two weeks before their “adventure,” they are given special and delicious foods designed to ready them for their upcoming quest. The parents have to watch their children eat their special rations knowing full well what they are for.
((Small Spoiler)) It is important to know that none of the younglings are sacrificed during this book. Our heroes do rescue them. Again, Smith tells hard stories but does so with sensitivity and grace.
But, for all of that darkness, there is more light. By the end of the book, several key victories advance the story and the hope of a significant miracle in the offing leaves us, the readers, feeling triumphant and eager for the final installment.
You can learn more about S. D. Smith and find more of our reviews of his books here. You can purchase this book directly from Sam’s store, Story Warren, here or from Amazon, here. You can learn more about the book at Biblioguides, here. Sara has done some Green Ember bookclubs, you can find more here.