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A Torch Against the Night author Sabaa Tahir lights fantasy with dark truths

News reports from war zones inspired this story of sorcery and swordplay.

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Joseph Siroker

Sabaa Tahir remembers the night a whole new universe sparked to life.

It was July 14, 2007, and she was working the late shift as a copy editor at The Washington Post when an article came across her desk from a correspondent in India. It was headlined “Living a Half-Life While Waiting For Those Lost,” and it chronicled the plight of women in the occupied Kashmir region whose men had been detained by Indian security agents, never to be seen or heard from again.

As the American child of Pakistani immigrants, the story was especially vivid and heartbreaking. “It was about these women whose brothers, fathers, the men in their lives were just taken,” Tahir says. “They’re like ‘We can’t do anything. We don’t know if they’re dead. We don’t know if they’re alive. There’s no recourse. There’s no trial.’ I could not get that out of my head. I just couldn’t. Are they being tortured? Just not knowing, that’s its own type of hell. I was really frustrated with it. We live in that world.”

There wasn’t much she could do to change it — so she imagined a different one. “I was like, ‘What if I write a story about a world in which someone can’t fight back, but by God, she is going to try to get her family member back?’” Tahir says. “It all sort of exploded out of that one story.”

After leaving her job at the Post, moving across country, giving birth to two children, and years of writing and rewriting, that eureka moment evolved into her best-selling 2015 fantasy adventure An Ember in the Ashes, about a slave girl named Laia who infiltrates the ranks of an oppressive regime with the hope of rescuing her imprisoned brother.

It’s set in an ancient, savage realm named Serra — a fusion of Roman and Middle Eastern antiquity and mythology. In the story, enforcers in mystical silver masks that fuse to the skin of their faces help the Martial empire rule over a restless, occupied underclass known as Scholars, who are thirsty for rebellion but lack the weaponry to strike back.

Paramount snapped up the film rights to Ember in a reported seven-figure deal before the book even came out. Now publisher Razorbill has announced two more books in the series just as the Ember sequel, A Torch Against the Night, hits stores this week.

Now Tahir, 34, is hard at work in the tiny room she rents in a Silicon Valley office building in Los Altos, California. At her home, she has two little kids and a husband, Kashi (“Like the cereal,” she says), who works in the tech industry, so it helps to have a designated offsite location to focus on her novels.

Her writing nook — she refers to it as a “writing cave” — is festooned with art from fans, who call themselves “Emberlings.” The shelves and cabinets are stacked with books she loves — works by Stephen King, Leigh Bardugo, and J.K. Rowling. The room is meant to be a quiet place, but she makes it loud when she needs it to be — The Strumbellas, Ra Ra Riot, and Bon Jovi are among those her massive writing playlist.

This nondescript corner room, which she sublets from a medical device company, is a portal into her other world, though she tends to bring pieces of our own with her — snippets of other true-life news stories that continue to inspire her writing.

One of her Emberlings is fellow novelist Adam Silvera, author of More Happy Than Not and the upcoming History is All You Left Me, who notes that fantasy storytelling is often an escape from real life, but in this case, unflinching reality is the fuel that makes the otherworldly tale burn hotter and brighter.

“The focus of the series for me has always been the humanity of the characters, Laia and Elias, not so much the swinging of the swords or any of the other super-dope fight scenes,” Silvera says. “It’s a cinematic story of loyalty, but I love that it’s set in a fantasy world with these crazy-loud echoes of real-life problems, such as poverty, slavery, and war. Sabaa has really tapped into something that’s digging deep.”

A CHILD SOLDIER, BECOMING A MAN

While crafting Laia’s story as the central arc, Tahir began trying to look at this severe, fictional realm from another point of view — a young Martial soldier named Elias, whose silver mask hasn’t yet bonded to his face. There’s something off about him. The magic’s not working, partly because he’s resisting it.

Elias is sickened by the way his people treat the Scholars, and he forms an alliance with Laia that helps him find the courage to rise up against his fellow Masks and the ruthless Commandant who presides over their training at Blackcliff Academy. The Commandant is a brutal, cruel and calculating woman — who also happens to be Elias’ mother.

As Tahir first began turning Elias over in her imagination, he was just “a vague love interest,” the author says. Then an image from a newspaper story about the Liberian civil war provided the dimension she needed, grounding the fantasy in something heartbreakingly real.

“I was reading about child soldiers, and I remember this story with a kid on the front page of The Washington Post,” she says. “He had a pink teddy bear backpack and he’s holding an AK.” That image of corrupted innocence became Elias’ core. Tahir imagined a child soldier who grew older and finally became strong enough to say: no more.

In her original manuscript for An Ember in the Ashes, Tahir started with this soldier boy and slave girl fleeing the Martial-controlled territories together — him seeking redemption and escape, her seeking a brother trapped in the remote Kauf prison. “Then I realized I’m really jumping ahead of myself,” she says. “My original Book One started where Book Two starts now, but I needed to figure out who these people are and how they became what they became. That’s when I rewound it.”

Ember instead delved into how Laia and Elias came to find each other, recoiling from the imperial horrors of the Martials and identifying one another as allies in extremely hostile territory — then plotting their act of rebellion. The second book now begins with them on the run together, encountering even more human menaces and supernatural forces beyond the walls of the Martial-occupied region.

While Ember was narrated from alternating first-person views of Laia and Elias, a third POV was added to A Torch Against the Night — Helene, a fellow Mask and friend of Elias’ who remains in service to the Martial Empire, but is still hoping to change her society of warriors from within.

HEARTS AND MINDS

Once again, news stories from a warzone on the other side of our world served as a guide for Tahir as she explored Helene. The author was especially inspired by the timeless military problem of soldiers winning hearts and minds while trying not to lose their own.

The seed this time wasn’t a particular news story, but the 1996 non-fiction book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former Ranger and paratrooper in the U.S. Army who went on to teach psychology at West Point.

“How far do you go in following orders?” Tahir says. “So many people use it as an excuse, right? ‘I was following orders.’ But what does that mean? What if you have to kill a friend? That’s just your way of saying, ‘It’s not my fault.’”

Helene is a soldier whose intentions are pure and loyal, but she doesn’t want to just follow orders anymore. She sees that the Martials aren’t just failing to win over the conquered — they’re losing their own hearts and minds.

“How is she going to hang onto her humanity? We all want everything to be black and white because it’s so much easier. It makes it less painful for us. But things are not black and white,” Tahir says. “Laia looks at Helene and she sees the villain. She sees the Mask. They’re Martials. They’re the enemy. But what does the enemy feel like?  They’re people too. They still have their own motivations and their own issues and conflicts.”

Judging by the fan-art around her office, her army of Emberlings feels an especially strong connection to Helene. Maybe it’s an attraction to her moral ambiguity — the way Star Wars fans love the murky morals of Han Solo. Helene’s trying to protect herself, and those she loves, but she’s not willing to do that all other costs.

Tahir says the defining question for Helene is: “How can you make it so you can actually live with yourself after you protected yourself?”

WITNESS TO DARKNESS

Helene is also vital in terms of storytelling mechanics because she gives the readers eyes and ears on the villains of the series — The Commandant; the young, impetuous Emperor, Marcus; and also the shadowy, otherworldly creature known as The Nightbringer, who is manipulating the situation to right an ancient wrong.

In Ember, we never directly saw through Helene’s eyes, but she served as the one thread to the Martial empire that Elias was reluctant to break — kind of a reverse Jiminy Cricket, urging him to stay true to his pledge, rather than succumbing to the conscience that was telling him to run.

In Torch, Tahir dives deeper into Helene’s own thoughts, and new dimensions of her character emerge. She has ascended to a position second in command to the Emperor, a title known as Blood Shrike, but soon learns that some titles are mere figureheads, and real power lies elsewhere.

“I think the key was her relationship with the Commandant, which we’re going to explore much more in the third book,” Tahir says. “Helene underestimates the Commandant. She doesn’t get that this woman is just the worst.”

There’s a meaningful line in A Torch Against the Night: “The problem with greedy people… is that they think everyone else is as greedy as they are.” The reverse can also be true — fundamentally good people sometimes assume others must be pure-intentioned, too.

“It’s a mistake people make where they apply their own morals to other people thinking ‘Well, they’ll follow the rules,’” Tahir says. “[Helene] even knows the Commandant’s pretty bad and yet she still sort of assumes that like ‘oh, it’s going be fine.’”

Spoiler warning — it’s not going to be fine.

Even the Commandant was partly inspired by a true-life news report. “I read a story a long time ago about a Tunisian Truth & Reconciliation Commission, and that’s where I found her story. It was one of those things where the second I read it I was like, ‘There it is. That is the reason that this person is the way they are.’”

The incident, which she doesn’t want to give away now (look for echoes of it in future Ember books) was not about someone who was guilty of atrocity, however.

“It was somebody against whom an atrocity had been committed,” she Tahir says. “This article was talking about all these people in Tunisia and what they had been through the revolution. Tunisia is one of the only places where the Arab Spring really stuck, so one of the things they did is start this Truth & Reconciliation Commission. People were coming out and they’re talking about, ‘This happened in my family… This happened to my wife…”

Within these stories, she found one that explains the Commandant’s hardened heart. “When I found it, it was like a puzzle piece dropped from the sky.”

THIS AMERICAN DESERT LIFE

Some other true-life stories that factor into the Ember series belong to Tahir herself.

She grew up with two older brothers in Ridgecrest, California — a speck on the map in the heart of the Mojave Desert. It used to be called Crumville. Seriously.

The town’s most recent claim to fame was a swarm of heavy-duty earthquakes in 1995, and there’s about 150 miles of desert between Ridgecrest and the nearest big city, if places like Bakersfield and San Bernardino count. Being one of the only Pakistani families within miles just made Tahir feel even more isolated. It was easy to live there and dream of elsewhere.

Her home was only 80 miles from Lancaster, though — a dusty, scrubland most Los Angelenos think of as Mad Max territory. “No, Lancaster was considered like, you know… Posh, like fancy,” Tahir says, bursting out a laugh. “Yeah, it was like the hip place to be. “

Although Ridgecrest was small and remote, it wasn’t populated by yokels. It was full of rocket scientists — literally. The town’s primary reason for existing, its lifeblood, is the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake, where experimental weaponry is developed.

“The average education level in the town is like, a master’s degree,” Tahir says. ”They built the Tomahawk out there. The Sidewinder missile. There were always weird flashes of light at night. It was a weird little town … Roswellian.”

Her parents were both born in Pakistan but lived their young adulthood in England before transplanting their young family to the southwestern United States. Her engineer father had taken work with an oil company in Texas but lost his job during a downturn in the economy in the 1980s. He was offered the opportunity to purchase a motel in California and jumped at the chance — sight unseen.

“He was like, ‘I’ll run a business for like a couple years and then we’ll get out, and I’ll, go continue engineering. We’ll make some money and it’ll give us something to do,’” she recalls. Her parents were sophisticated, educated, and they were business owners — but they were also running things by themselves, which meant they were service workers, too. The customer may always be right, but that doesn’t mean the customer is always pleasant.

“People could be really horrible, you know? They would threaten my parents. My mom used to have this broom [behind the counter] in case she felt like she had to fight someone off. She was pretty fearless,” Tahir says. “She’s little, too. I remember one day, somebody was giving her trouble. My dad wasn’t there. I was terrified. My brother and I were freaking out. I was 10 at the time and he was like 13. Someone was being abusive because I guess he wanted to see his girlfriend — or ex‑girlfriend — who was in the one of the rooms, and [the woman] was like ‘Don’t tell him where I am.’ My mom called the police, but what do you do when this guy’s trying to get over your desk?”

So Tahir’s mom grabbed her trusty broom and began swinging — sweeping the hostile man right out the door. “And he actually backed off. I remember that, too,” Tahir says. “I remember watching him go like this…” She throws her hands up in her front of her face, curling up in her desk chair.

Those experiences went on to inspire the Martial treatment of the Scholars in her books. “I would basically take something that happened and multiply it by like a hundred, because obviously nothing that we encountered was anything like what Laia did,” Tahir says.

PUSHING BACK

Tahir’s experiences din’t inspire just Laia and the Scholas. She also felt a deep connection to Elias and Helene, since she also chafed at the direction others had in mind for her life.

She grew up in a strict household with a traditionalist Muslim upbringing, and over time that began to clash with the feminist, liberal ideals evolving within her. She wasn’t pressed into battle, like the Martials, but she felt torn between two ways of life — what she wanted, and what her mother and father wanted. Her parents were insistent about what she should do for a living — something in medicine, preferably a doctor. They also wanted to help arrange a marriage for her.

“Marry a nice Pakistani boy,” she says. “They were like, ‘You know.. we’ll find whatever you want!’ So I joked like, ‘Well, does he listen to Radiohead? And how’s he going feel about me liking sock puppets?’” In 2003, when her journalism career (not medicine, sorry mom and dad) was just beginning, Tahir wrote a story for The Washington Post, where she was an intern, about her resistance to the arranged marriage process. The article happened to be read by … a nice Pakistani boy. His name was Kashi. Like the cereal.

Kashi Tahir wrote to ask Sabaa Saleem out on a date, and now a photo of her husband and her mother at the wedding hangs on the wall next to her desk. Her parents got the Pakistani son-in-law they wanted, but like most young American women, their daughter arranged her own marriage, thank you. “They were over the moon,” Tahir says. “They were like, ‘Sweet! We didn’t have to do any work. This is great.’”

If her pattern of storytelling holds, perhaps we’ll see a similar theme turn up by the time the Ember series closes — multiplied by a hundred, of course. Rebellion, resistance — but also, maybe, a happy ending for those who stay true to themselves.

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