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The Ember Quartet Keeps Burning

A Reaper at the Gates

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.

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A Young Adult Fantasy Gem

An Ember in the Ashes

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 they 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!

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