Title: A Reaper at the Gates
Series: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Date Added: August 23, 2017
Date Started: July 2, 2018
Date Finished: August 4, 2018
Reading Duration: 33 days
Genre: Fantasy, Dystopian, Young Adult (YA), Romance
Beyond the Empire and within it, the threat of war looms ever larger.
The Blood Shrike, Helene Aquilla, is assailed on all sides. Emperor Marcus, haunted by his past, grows increasingly unstable, while the Commandant capitalizes on his madness to bolster her own power. As Helene searches for a way to hold back the approaching darkness, her sister’s life and the lives of all those in the Empire hang in the balance.
Far to the east, Laia of Serra knows the fate of the world lies not in the machinations of the Martial court, but in stopping the Nightbringer. But while hunting for a way to bring him down, Laia faces unexpected threats from those she hoped would aid her, and is drawn into a battle she never thought she’d have to fight.
And in the land between the living and the dead, Elias Veturius has given up his freedom to serve as Soul Catcher. But in doing so, he has vowed himself to an ancient power that will stop at nothing to ensure Elias’s devotion–even at the cost of his humanity.
***Spoilers for all previous books in the series***
Tahir has the gift of making characters on both sides of the conflict sympathetic, even casting some compassion on Keris Veturia. Though a tortured past doesn’t excuse the horrible things one does, it often provides an explanation. It is no easy feat to do something like this, and it is one of the better attributes of ASOIAF, as well. Like Martin, Tahir not only titles her chapters by the character whose viewpoint we follow, but she adds additional ones with each volume. This is merely logistical, though; what’s more interesting is how Tahir, like GRRM, seems to subscribe (whether consciously or no) to William Faulkner’s philosophy:
The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.
And every single character fights this battle, even ones we’ve hitherto only seen the villainous side of. The new points of view in this installment broaden the scope of the conflict, but what I loved the most (and what seems to be a zone of contention per some of the reviews I’ve read) is the greater focus on Helene with less on Elias.
The Blood Shrike saw her entire family slaughtered save her sister, who is now the emperor’s wife and hostage. Now Livia is the only thing she has left, and Helene will do anything to protect her. This is the same paradigm found in Hunger Games, Final Fantasy XIII, and Frozen among others, and it’s something even someone without siblings can relate to. Circumstances put Helene on the opposite side to Laia and Elias, and such situations make the reader wonder and fear how things could ever be easily resolved (spoiler alert: they can’t). This is made even worse by Helene’s inability to see things beyond her own point of view. Not only does this deficiency cause her grief with Elias, it is a far greater disaster when it comes to her dealings with the Commandant Keris Veturias.
While what Keris suffered in her youth in no way makes up for the atrocities she commits, like all people with past traumas, it offers an explanation. Even though Helene and Keris share the identity of being women in what’s considered a “man’s” place, the Blood Shrike was not warped like Keris was, so she can’t fathom how the Commandant behaves. Keris doesn’t care about how many people die so long as she can undermine Helene’s authority and hold onto power, because loss of power is the only thing she fears. It’s obvious Helene doesn’t understand this because when Keris’ history is related to her, she insists it doesn’t matter, but of course it does. It’s the foundation of everything the Commandant is doing. It’s not a matter of what Keris is willing to do; it’s the matter of what she has the ability to enact. There is no bottom. People like Keris don’t care how many others they hurt/kill, so long as they get what they want (something that’s necessary for us to remember in our own world). You cannot look at their actions through the lens of your own rules, because they don’t have the same moral compass, and if Helene doesn’t start thinking about that, she’s going to lose more than her sister.
Helene and Elias were once best friends now bitter enemies due to circumstances beyond their control, and the worst kind of powerlessness in not when harm will come to yourself, but to someone you love. That’s what Helene is dealing with. Livia is an abused empress being used by the despotic Marcus to control Helene, and that very aspect makes it frighteningly accurate to current events. An unfit leader is terrifying especially when he’s being enabled by those around them. Truthfully, an unfit leader only persists when he is being enabled by those around him. Were this not so, such a person would long be removed. The Scholar refugees and Laia’s question of “Why is it always us?” also has a hollow ring to it.
But there may be an answer to this question in the past. Once this information is revealed, it’s hard to ignore that the other side has a valid reason to be angry even as you still sympathize with the plight of the Scholars.
The past will never leave us. It sleeps beneath our skins.
Elias stopped being the only important main character a long time ago, which is why I disagree with the critiques about him being less active in this story. It would be like a reader of ASOIAF being annoyed that Eddard was no longer a main (though our favorite Mask doesn’t suffer quite the same fate).
All three main characters Elias, Laia, and Helene have interesting relationships with their mothers. Elias hates his just as he’s a reminder of her violation. Keris is *spoiler* working with the Nightbringer, *end spoiler* and Elias has to help stop her evil plans from reaching fruition. It’s like in their relationship there is a terrible corruption, an antithesis of how things are supposed to be. It was ruined from the very beginning and there’s no way of fixing it. Helene watched her mother die to protect her and her legacy. As for Laia, *spoiler* she thought she’d lost hers, but the Lioness became the Cook who was enslaved beside her in Blackcliff, and I was absolutely right about that. *end spoiler*
The end of this novel definitely fulfills some prophecy, one that will shake the world. It’s even more profound than the one Laia tries to interpret. What I love is how this story has evolved. In the first book we’re introduced to the paradigm of the enslaved and the slavers with the Scholars and the Martials respectively, and the idea was simple and timeless: no one deserves to be in bondage. Masks were monsters until we see through Elias’ and, to a lesser extent, Helene’s point of view. She is fine with the current order, viewing it as conquerors vs. conquered (which is sadly the philosophy some white people still have about colonization), though it’s an understandable (if wrong) position due to how she was raised. Elias, while a Mask through and through, sees the flaws in this possibly because of his own background being raised by the Tribes.
Tahir knows how to raise the stakes and put her characters into legitimate danger even as they experience soul crushing loss. There is no information about the final book in the series, but I signed up for the author’s newsletter, and hopefully we will have word soon.