“The story evolved in unexpected ways,” Sabaa Tahir acknowledges of her YA fantasy series An Ember in the Ashes, which concludes today with the release of A Sky Beyond the Storm. “I knew that the first book would be heavily influenced by world events, but I didn’t necessarily realize that this would continue.”
While the first volume, An Ember in the Ashes, was published in 2015, it was conceptualized more than a decade ago while Tahir worked on the international desk at the Washington Post, copy editing heart-rending stories such as one about young Kashmiri males being taken from their families by the military and never returning home. Ember’s sequel, A Torch Against the Night (2016), was prompted by the global refugee crisis, which Tahir recalled having risen to “new levels of insanity” at the time she was writing. And the conflict between Iraq and the Kurds, as well as other wars and the Arab Spring, she says, permeated the plot of the third volume, A Reaper at the Gates (2018).
Set in a world reminiscent of ancient Rome, the series tells the story of Laia of Serra, a teenaged girl of color who starts out on a quest to save her brother, who has been arrested for treason. Allying herself with rebels by agreeing to spy for them in exchange for their help rescuing her brother, Laia finds herself a leader in the resistance to the tyranny of the Martial Empire, which has brutally subjugated the Scholars, an ethnic minority to which Laia belongs.
The Truth in Fiction
A few days before Sky arrives in bookstores, Tahir declined to give away any tidbits concerning the denouement of the series, but teased that she is “a great believer in hope” and hope “is a driving force” throughout the series, especially in Sky. The tale resumes where Reaper left off, with Laia having joined forces with an erstwhile foe against a common enemy. Meanwhile, the Scholars, who have vacated a city under assault, are fleeing before an army led by Commandant Keris Veturia, who is intent on destroying any who oppose her.
“I didn’t model any characters after anyone in the current administration,” Tahir noted. “However, I heard a lot from readers about how in the past four years, and particularly since the pandemic began, they struggled to find hope. So I tried to explore that theme in the book.”
Tahir disclosed that Sky explores how “despotic governments crush populations,” and how a regime “that is seemingly fine” can become oppressive almost overnight, though the rest of the world might not know the extent of it. For instance, she said, during the 2019–2020 Jammu and Kashmir lockdown, the Indian government prevented people from entering or leaving this territory adjacent to Pakistan, a bad situation magnified by a complete news and communications blackout.
“It made me really sad; it was so disheartening” explained Tahir, who is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants to the U.S. After all, she added, “It was the Kashmiri story that started this series.” The situation had not improved since she’d copy edited Washington Post reporter Emily Wax’s report in 2007 on Kashmiri women whose male relatives were taken away by the military: “It’d actually gotten worse.”
While the situation in such hot spots indeed may deteriorate as repressive regimes try to crush dissent, due to social media, outsiders are more able to see beyond propaganda and restricted access to information. “People who live under these regimes and are enemies of the state, or protesters, or activists—they know the truth,” she pointed out, noting that in her research for this series, she has delved into the plight of political prisoners “who are stuck in these really awful prisons where they have no human rights,” as well as “the journey of people who are fleeing a war-torn country or a natural disaster.”
Tahir admits that her series contains graphic scenes of violence—life in this world is, to quote Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short,” as some beloved characters are tortured and others are killed. She maintains that the violence “is an organic part of the story that helps the reader understand the real cost of war.” It is not there for “shock value,” nor is it “gratuitous,” Tahir insists. “I really do think very carefully about every word, every paragraph.” She does caution, however, that the series should be reserved for readers 14 and older.
Tahir is well aware that with her series she broke new ground in YA literature, as well as in the white, male-dominated science fiction/fantasy world, where Eurocentric stories dominate. Not only are there main characters who are people of color, but females figure prominently in the action, both as swashbuckling heroes and as villains. Tahir explained that she created female heroes in homage to so many women in her life who exhibit “strength and passion and courage and grace.” As for Commandant Veturia, who is so unapologetically hungry for power, Tahir points out, “Traditionally, you see a lot of male villains, and when there is a female villain, their origin stories are either not fleshed out, or they’ve been spurned by a lover.” Not so the Commandant, as Sky will reveal.
Tahir did not expect all the accolades the books have received since Ember was published, such as their inclusion on numerous Best Books of the Year lists compiled by national media. And Ember and Torch were named by Time magazine as two of its 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time. Sales have mirrored the acclaim: there are 1.2 million copies of the books in print in North America alone. Tahir is proud of her success and hopes that it will inspire more diverse writers like her—a Muslim woman of color—to write their stories, that publishers in turn will publish more books by such writers, and that readers will be as receptive to them as they have been to the Ember in the Ashes series.
Expressing pleasure that her books “opened doors” for other writers, Tahir hopes that young writers will continue to take inspiration from her, declaring, “I would like other authors from under-represented backgrounds to say, ‘My story might be nothing like hers, but if she can do it, I can do it too.’ ” Just as almost a decade ago, she added, Marie Lu and Tahereh Mafi’s debut novels, which were set in worlds inspired by their ancestral homelands and racial backgrounds, gave her the confidence to write down her own stories, and seek to get published too.
Now, five years after her own debut novel was published, Tahir pointed out, “There are all these writers doing such amazing things in science fiction/fantasy and speculative fiction,” naming Hanna Alkaf, Nafiza Azad, Somaiya Daud, Hafsah Faizal, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Intisar Khanani, Farah Karuna Riazi, Naz Rishi, London Shah, Sameem Siddiqui, and G. Willow Wilson. “The only way we can continue and that there will be more of us and more incredible, amazing stories for readers to read,” Tahir said, “is to support the authors that are out there by buying their books.”
End of an Era
This evening, Tahir will embark upon a virtual author tour, from her home office in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each of the tour’s five “stops” will be sponsored by a bookstore and will feature a conversation with another author, beginning with J. Elle during an event sponsored by Kepler’s Books in nearby Menlo Park, and concluding on December 9 with Adam Silvera at an event sponsored by Barnes & Noble. In between, Tahir will speak with Nicola Yoon (Vroman’s Bookstore, Dec. 3); Renee Ahdieh (Third Place Books, Dec. 4); and Tochi Onyebuchi (Politics and Prose, Dec. 7).
While she admits that this arrangement cannot replace an in-person tour, which provides so many opportunities to engage directly with one’s readers, Tahir enthused about the LoopLive platform, which replicates personal interactions by providing virtual private meeting rooms. Those purchasing VIP tickets will be able to access a LoopLive meeting room for a brief one-on-one conversation with Tahir.
“One-on-one is the single experience on an author’s tour that is for the reader,” she said, noting how much she enjoys reader feedback, suggestions, and even criticisms from those who wait in line to speak to her while she signs their books. She admits that she herself purchased Daughter of Smoke & Bone three times at various author events “just to meet” Laini Taylor.
Admitting that it was an intense experience having these characters and their tumultuous lives in her head for so many years, Tahir said that concluding the series is bittersweet, and that she is still coming to terms with leaving this world that she built and nurtured. “I’ve spent more than a decade with these characters,” she said. “You get to know them the way you get to know people. It’s like saying goodbye to family members who are going far, far away. Am I ever going to see them again?”
A Sky Beyond the Storm by Sabaa Tahir. Razorbill, $19.99 hardcover, Dec. 1 ISBN 978-0-448-49453-1