A Reaper at the Gates, the third book in Sabaa Tahir’s fantasy adventure quartet, was released last month. An Ember in the Ashes was the best book that I read in 2017, and A Torch Against the Night did not disappoint. I decided to reread the first two books before the third book’s release since I assumed that I had forgotten some details about the plot. (And indeed I had!) Besides, this is a young adult series, and rereading would have definitely been my move as a teen if I loved a series this much. Now I am fully prepared to evaluate the story arc.
My first post about An Ember in the Ashes mentioned some common pitfalls for authors continuing a series after a promising debut. It seems to me that Tahir took great care with her world-building at the start of the series. Across all three books, she displays a broad understanding of the Empire and its peoples, as well as specific knowledge about her characters’ histories and psychology. The series takes place in the Empire, a country ruled by the military-minded Martial class but also home to the oppressed Scholars. By drawing her characters from different groups and alternating perspectives, Tahir fills her fictional world with nuanced individuals, instead of a strict good-versus-evil dichotomy.
There’s an expectation that a fantasy series will broaden its scope and raise the stakes with each installment. In my opinion, this is where authors can sometimes lose sight of what made their story work in the first place. While An Ember in the Ashes switched between Elias and Laia’s perspectives, Tahir chose to add Helene’s perspective to the second book. Helene is Elias’s best friend from their childhood of elite military training, but the events of the first book place them at odds. On the practical side, her chapters keep the reader informed of what the Martials are up to, but she also represents another perspective on one of the series’ central themes: duty versus personal desire. By the third book, I was probably looking forward to her chapters more than any others.
A Reaper at the Gates is somewhat less focused on the characters’ personal struggles as they have become embroiled in larger conflicts. Or rather, the characters find it increasingly difficult to honor their personal desires while also serving the greater good. Although seemingly necessary for dramatic effect, this shift is probably where other series have lost me. Let’s be honest–I’m here for the feelings! Thankfully, Tahir intersperses the action with enough emotional upheaval to satisfy my inner adolescent. I wish that I could also escape the fantasy mainstays of prophecies and the undead, but as an infrequent visitor to this genre, perhaps I don’t have the right to complain.
Laia, Elias, and Helene were placed in extreme new circumstances at the end of A Torch Against the Night, and the same can be said for A Reaper at the Gates. Some of the changes are exciting and some are heartbreaking. The story strands have woven together in surprising ways, and I’m fascinated to see how they resolve. Now I can only hope it will be just a year’s wait for the final book.