In this exclusive first-look at the end of one of YA's biggest current series, Sabaa Tahir teases where things might be headed.
"Overwhelmed. Joyful! Disbelieving." The first words that come to mind for Sabaa Tahir as her groundbreaking, award-winning An Ember in the Ashes quartet comes to an end.
For those who've been following the series since its launch in the spring of 2015, we're nearing the end of a long, satisfying ride. The epic Ember books, considered a major turning point in the world of YA fantasy, have expanded greatly since readers were first introduced to Laia and Elias (now known as the Soul Catcher) five years ago. And it's been a long wait for fans since Book Three, A Reaper at the Gates, hit the shelves in the summer of 2018, but EW can exclusively reveal that we have a title, a publication date, a few details, and yes, a cover for the last installment.
Best to hear what to expect in Tahir's own words, right? EW caught up with the no. 1 New York Times best-selling author for a tease of what's to come in the grand finale — titled A Sky Beyond the Storm — as well as some reflection on what finally getting to the end has meant to her. Check out the official cover and our conversation below. The novel publishes Dec. 1, 2020.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve finished this series, and it’s been quite the journey. How are you feeling right now?
SABAA TAHIR: Overwhelmed. Joyful! Disbelieving. This series, this enormous tapestry that has consumed my brain for thirteen years is finally complete and I cannot process it. How did it go by so fast? It’s like watching a kid grow up. Along with the joy, I also feel sadness. Because while I might revisit the world of Ember again, I will never revisit these characters in quite the same way. And some of them we will be saying goodbye to forever. I’ve been very emotional. I used to say that I’m not really a crier. I can’t say that anymore.
I feel like there’s so little you can tell me at this point, but give me the broadest strokes: Given where we left off with Reaper, what can you tell us about this conclusion?
A Sky Beyond the Storm takes us deeper into the mind of our main villain, the Nightbringer. We delve into new alliances, the most surprising of which might be that of Laia and the Blood Shrike. As young women born into war, albeit in different ways, both understand the cost of letting the Nightbringer and his allies win. Exploring the relationship between Laia and the Shrike was one of my favorite parts of this story.
As for the Soul Catcher — known formerly as Elias — he really just wants to be left alone to carry out a duty he took up in Reaper. But I live to bring upheaval to his life so the poor guy doesn’t get much peace and quiet in Sky. Sorry Elias. Not really though?
This ending — when did you figure it out? How?
I’ve known the shape of the ending for years. I find it difficult to drop hints and plot the way I do without knowing how everything will play out. There are a few characters’ fates that were even decided twelve years ago, shortly after I began writing the series.
It was the details that I had to figure out. What are the characters saying to each other? Where are they emotionally? How do I get everyone to where I need them to be? How am I drawing in the larger themes of the series and offering a conclusion that feels true to the Ember Quartet as a whole? I will say that I reversed a death at the last minute. It felt inauthentic, and I never want to kill characters for shock value. Also, my mom threatened to never cook for me again if I killed any of her favorites. That particular change that was a bit of a surprise.
Did you struggle getting to that last page, or did the pieces neatly fall into place?
At first, I struggled. I liken writing a book to climbing a mountain, and getting to the last page felt like being in the Death Zone, but for weeks and weeks. Mostly because I was saying goodbye and I did not want to.
When I was a little kid and the world became too much, I’d sit in a laundry basket. It was a safe place. Obviously, I’m too big for that now. But sometimes — often — the world is still too much for me. My characters and the world of Ember are my laundry basket. I turn to them in some of my darkest moments, my loneliest. I turn to them when I lose faith in the world. I put my pain and hope and frustration into my work and into these characters.
It was strange to feel like I would not have that outlet anymore. But once I accepted it, the words came more easily. The last few chapters poured out of me. It felt like those words were sitting in my head for years, waiting for me to discover them. Journalists close out stories by writing -30- at the end. When I wrote my -30- at the end of Sky, I wept. Apparently, I am a crier. The only emotion that’s come close to that is giving birth. Because metaphorically, that’s what writing a book is.
You asked fans what side character they hope to see. Did their responses surprise you? Anything you can tease out of that?
I adore Musa of Adisa. I was surprised and gratified to see that so many of my readers did, too! He’s a sort of older sibling figure to Laia, and serves as an important side character in Reaper. He takes on a bigger role in Sky — but is as irreverent and arrogant as ever. I’m excited for the Musa fans to hang out with him again.
What’s something that might surprise fans about this conclusive book?
On a lighter note, the title came to me very late — just a few months ago. We’d had a storm where I live, and my younger child pointed out how nice the sky looked after the storm. That night, at 2 a.m., the title hit. Thanks, kid!
More seriously, Sky is my favorite of the four Ember books. Maybe because I poured my soul into it. Or maybe because it is not just the end of a journey for my characters, but the end of a journey for me. Since I was a kid, I’ve asked myself this question: How do we hold onto hope in the midst of the suffering, pain and struggle the world throws at us? I’ve spent hundreds of pages considering that question. With Sky, I think I finally answered it.
This has been such a major series in YA. Many up-and-coming authors cite it as a primary inspiration. As you close the book on it, for now anyway, how are you reflecting on that — its impact, and your own growth as an author?
Recently, I congratulated a friend on hitting the New York Times list alongside one of her dear friends, and she responded: “The Legacy of the Baa!” A nickname.
What she said and the joy with which she said it was the best kind of shock. It got me thinking about the writers who impacted me: Ursula K. Le Guin, Terry Brooks, Marie Lu, Alison Croggon, Emily Wax, Anthony Shadid — and so many more. Without those authors and journalists and their work, I would never have written Ember. I understand deeply what it means to be inspired by someone else’s writing. For me, there’s no higher compliment.
I wrote Ember because I could not find books that spoke to my identity as a woman of color and as a Muslim. I felt invisible in fantasy and in young-adult fiction. I felt the struggles that affected me, or my family or my people were invisible. Our mythology was invisible or worse, co-opted and appropriated. I wrote EMBER because I wanted brown kids as heroes and romantic leads and side characters and villains and everything in between. I wanted us front and center. So if the books have resonated for other writers, then I am so thankful for it.
It is an enormous privilege to write this story. My hope is that the Ember Quartet keeps making an impact. And that I learn and improve so that these stories, and those I’ve yet to write are still here long after I’m gone.