“You are young to stand so deeply in the shadow.”
A compelling third installment in Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series, A Reaper at the Gates draws readers further into her world as Laia, Elias, and the Blood Shrike are faced with greater personal stakes than ever before.
This book was thrilling from start to finish, filled with battles, palace intrigue, and eldritch villains. Tahir is a master of action and adventure, crafting scenes that grab you and refuse to let you go until the dust has settled. In A Reaper at the Gates, this talent is devoted mostly to the stories of Laia and the Blood Shrike. Elias’s narrative is less interesting, but his chapters are relatively few and short compared to the other two narrators’.
It’s probably a sign of how jaded I am, but I really appreciate Tahir’s decision to take a step back from the romance that made An Ember in the Ashes so cloying. With more attention devoted to non-romantic issues – both personal and broad in scope – both A Reaper at the Gates and its predecessor, A Torch Against the Night, feel more immediate in their stakes and more organic in the relationships that do develop.
(I only hope I can enjoy Laia and Elias if/when they get together in the end – I’ve learned that I love the “separated lovers” trope so much that I get annoyed when said lovers are reunited in lovey-dovey bliss.)
Tahir does a wonderful job fleshing out secondary characters to make them more than mere talking heads. One character I didn’t expect to love half so much as I did was Livia. For someone with a relatively small role, Livia is a character I haven’t often seen: abused but resilient, laying plans from the start and moving to her own ends. I really hope we get more Livia later. Even Marcus was humanized, just a little bit.
That being said, while the action scenes remain exciting, the feel of stakes rising in A Reaper at the Gates is undercut by the scope of the stakes in A Torch Against the Night. In Torch, Tahir introduces the mass genocide of an entire race. In Reaper, she completely discards this plot to focus on the conflict between two separate races. It’s an abrupt loss, poorly explained, and it has the jarring feel of pumping the brakes so Tahir can set up yet another reason why the Scholars are in trouble. We know the Scholars are screwed. We’ve known that since book one, and the awkward shifting of stakes between books two and three suggest a hasty transition from a trilogy to a quartet.
Despite my complaints about the broader stakes, the personal stakes end on a wonderful note: each narrator is faced with a new vulnerability, a new threat, or a new duty they have to tackle on their own.
On the whole, A Reaper at the Gates is a strong addition in a thrilling, addictive series. Readers of fantasy, adventure, and stories of epic scope should do themselves a favor and check out Sabaa Tahir’s work.