FICTION: ACCOMPLISHED FANTASY

January 20, 2019

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Normally, it’s not a good idea to jump into a book series halfway through as a lot of the character development and context setting has already been done. And yet, that was the challenge I accepted when I picked up A Reaper at the Gates, the new instalment of Sabaa Tahir’s best-selling fantasy series, An Ember in the Ashes. The book, like the rest of the series, has been well received and I was intrigued to see how a Pakistani-American author tackles genre fiction, especially the relatively tricky area of high fantasy.

The third in a four-book series, A Reaper at the Gates follows the story of three principal characters as they each continue on their journeys in a richly imagined and vast world, in the middle of a major existential struggle. Laia, battling to prevent the Nightbringer from unleashing an imprisoned Jinn and wreaking havoc over all of mankind, is a Scholar, the group of people who imprisoned the Jinn in the first place and may have magical powers. Helene is a General in the army of the deranged Emperor Marcus; she has turned on her former allies (and fellow protagonists) in order to protect her sister, who is the Empress and hostage to the sadistic ruler. Meanwhile, Elias, struggling with his role as the next Soul Catcher, is torn between his new duty and his old life and loves.

All three main characters are, each in their own way, battling the empire, their individual inner demons and history, as well as the looming threat of the Nightbringer. Add into the mix plenty of courtroom intrigue, an extremely large and well-articulated world and various supernatural and magical elements, and you have the building blocks of a compelling high fantasy book series.

Reading the third book in a fantasy series first actually whets the appetite for the other parts

Some of these elements may seem a bit Game of Thrones-ey to the casual reader, and they aren’t wrong. Generally speaking, there are certain story arcs in high fantasy that tend to appear in one guise or another in multiple places. But it would be wrong to dismiss this book — and the series it is an unavoidable part of — as just another pretender.

Tahir knows her genre well and is an accomplished writer in her own right. She brings her knowledge of the elements of Eastern mythology into the mix with real skill. There are jinn, ghuls and ifrit aplenty, and the character names also often veer towards the Middle Eastern. For someone who speaks Urdu, there are plenty of Easter eggs to find in place and character names, which adds an extra layer of fun to the reading experience, especially as these are not shoehorned into the story, but flow organically from the narrative.

The writing is accomplished. Each chapter is from the first-person perspective of one of the characters (no, people, George R.R. Martin does not have a monopoly on that narrative trick) and their inner monologues are quite well defined, with each character possessing a distinct voice. The author tackles the rather dark subject matter in a very courageous manner, not glancing away from the cruelty and violence that inhabit the world she has created. This does sometimes make for uncomfortable reading, but also builds a huge amount of empathy for the journey the lead characters are on. I understand this series is pitched towards a Young Adult reader base, but hesitate to say if it would be well placed in that demographic, primarily for that reason.

Also interesting are the shades of grey that inhabit the characters. Even the ‘bad’ guys aren’t really, truly evil, and the author takes time to explore their motivations and thoughts, making it difficult to unequivocally dislike even the sadistic Emperor Marcus or the world-threatening Nightbringer. And that makes readers’ job that much harder — they have to use their own brain to decide which characters to have what level of empathy for; no conclusions neatly tied up into a bow here.

Ideally, the best way to really enjoy this book is to read the earlier volumes in the An Ember in the Ashes series first, otherwise the reader might have to struggle a bit in the start with understanding characters and relationships that were established in the earlier books. An Ember in the Ashes, the first of the three books published so far has been the best received. The second is A Torch in the Night. The novel under review here ends — as a good penultimate volume should — by promising a grand confrontation between the forces of good and evil still to come, with the fate of the world in the balance. The characters are humanised (even the non-human ones) to the point where you genuinely care what fate befalls them.

As a standalone volume, A Reaper at the Gates works largely because it is well-written and inhabits a clear universe with characters that are easy to relate to and which compel readers to care for their fates. Again, this is helped by the visceral depiction of the more disturbing events, exacting the kind of emotional reactions that immediately also make you worry for the wellbeing of the protagonists. But I, for one, am quite likely to go back to the earlier volumes, despite having read the third one first. The world and the characters make you care for them and, despite the third volume naturally containing spoilers for the first two, there is enough in the world created by Tahir to want you to spend more time in it.

“Perhaps I, too, should institute whippings.” Shaeva’s voice cuts through the air like a scim, and I nearly jump out of my skin. “Would you then appear when you are supposed to, Elias, instead of shirking your responsibilities to play hero?” “Shaeva! I was just... ah, are you... steaming?” Vapour rises in thick plumes from the jinn woman. “Someone” — she glares at me — “forgot to hang up the washing. I was out of shirts.” And since she is a jinn, her unnaturally high body heat will dry her washed laundry... after an hour or two of unpleasant dampness, I’m sure. No wonder she looks like she wants to kick me in the face.— Excerpt from the book

Will this be a book that transcends genre? Would you like it even if your exposure to high fantasy is limited to a certain HBO television series? Well, that’s difficult to tell. I feel that the mythology, Eastern as it is in many ways, combined with a world that has echoes of ancient Rome, makes an interesting combination, though not a mind-bending one. In a Pakistani context, the author’s heritage may give it enough impetus to lift it out of its genre, and it certainly deserves that. This is accomplished writing on a large scale.

The reviewer is a finance professional and occasional bookworm

A Reaper at the Gates
By Sabaa Tahir
HarperVoyager, US
ISBN: 978-0008288754
480pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 20th, 2019