Official Summary: 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.
My Thoughts: I liked An Ember in the Ashes. It’s trope-y, but overall a decent read. I really liked A Torch Against the Night. It improves upon everything its predecessor gets wrong. But A Reaper at the Gates? I loved this book. Everything about this novel blew me away: the character development, the world, and the plot. I haven’t been this riveted by a book in a long time. I just couldn’t put it down! If Furyborn was my gateway back into YA fantasy, then A Reaper at the Gates was my reason for staying. This is, hands down, Sabaa Tahir’s best work yet.
The one place where this book—as with any book— could’ve failed the most was with the character development. I place characters above all else in any book, so if they’re not well-written, well… neither is your book. Tahir, however, has only improved on this front (and every front). Our main characters— Laia, Helene, and Elias— have all progressed in ways that make sense and serve the story well. That is to say, these characters are becoming who they need to be for the final battle. Tahir makes no compromises here, even when it hurts. And, well, it really makes for some stand-out character moments, not just in this series, but in all of YA fantasy.
Laia has progressed so much from the meek, cowardly girl from the first book. Now she’s determined and strong, a natural-born leader. In fact, I’d argue that’s she’s become more compassionate as the series has gone on. Helene (or as she’s known almost exclusively in this book, the Blood Shrike) acts as Laia’s foil. Where Laia has really come into her own, Helene grows more and more out of her element. She’s in the big leagues now, where she must be cunning and ruthless— neither of which are skills she necessarily excels at (especially against the Commandant). As the Blood Shrike in a politically turbulent time, Helene must also become less compassionate. She must do whatever has to be done for the sake of her people, no matter how ugly or immoral.
That said, Helene still finds herself in a similar predicament to Elias. Both are constantly torn between wanting to protect the ones they love and duty. The names used to denote chapters from their point of view signify which they choose. Elias’ growth is definitely the most upsetting. However, it’s not because it’s badly written. On the contrary, it’s because it’s so well-written that it’s heartbreaking. Ultimately, all three of these characters have long since outgrown any of the things that made me not love them— I would die for any of them now.
It isn’t just character development that Tahir has improved at— her world-building has gotten so much better. Not only has she expanded it, but she’s made it much more detailed and immersive. We get a much deeper look into the inner workings of Martial, Scholar, and Mariner culture. We also learn more about the Nightbringer, the Waiting Place, and the jinn. This world has only become more real as the story has moved forward.
This world isn’t just a background for these characters to exist in front of— it influences and changes them. The characters must interact directly with their world, otherwise the story doesn’t progress. This may sound like I’m praising the book for using the setting the way it should, but there’s just something about the way Tahir does it that stands out to me. Everything is intrinsic to everything else— she really explores how the actions of one group can affect another, whether directly or indirectly. This world is so vivid, I felt as though it were just a step away.
When describing the plot, I’d say it’s largely character-driven. I mean, each of our three main characters are working towards a different goal. Thus, it’s hard to give the book one concrete plot. Tahir fixes this by giving us three interwoven, character-driven plots. Laia aims to defeat the Nightbringer, Helene seeks to take down the Commandant, and Elias tries to master his position as Soul Catcher. Their paths cross (many times, in fact) and, as such, so do their stories.
However, more than just being dictated by the characters, this plot is exciting. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, my eyes wide. Which, of course, brings me to the aspect of plots that will inevitable either pay off or fail miserably: the plot twist. Or should I say plot twists? Because this book was full of them. And I didn’t see a single one coming. Tahir has always been good at surprising me, but this book took that to a whole new level! I had no idea what was going to happen next! In fact, this book is one of the most unpredictable books I’ve ever read. If I had to pick the book with the best plot that I’ve read this year, it would emphatically be this one.
Thematically, this book is all about what it means to be human. Each character explores this in a different way and in conjunction with their journeys. This novel explores love of all kinds: romantic, familial, or community. These characters all have so much love to give, but sometimes have to choose which person or group of people to focus it on. The book also discusses racism, especially against the Scholars. It’s heartbreaking how much their situation mirrors the real-life experiences immigrants from Central and South America are facing right now in the United States or what the Syrian refugees have been going through for the past couple years. Knowing how detailed the rest of this book is, this comparison is definitely intentional. It’s a powerful parallel that makes a distant situation feel personal.
As far as diversity goes, this is a pretty diverse book. It’s light on LGBT+ representation, but it’s filled with characters of color. Being a fantasy series, I can’t say for sure what race they are, but the Scholars most directly parallel Middle Eastern or South Asian people, while the Tribes read more like African analogs. Darin, Laia’s brother, experiences PTSD in this book; however, it’s not explored as well as I would’ve liked. So this book doesn’t do great on the mental health front— not terrible, just not great. Regardless, this is still a remarkably diverse book (and series!) overall.
My love for this book really snuck up on me. Sabaa Tahir’s writing has improved so much from her humble beginnings at the start of this series. In fact, A Reaper at the Gates is so good that it was well worth the two-year wait. The character development is phenomenal, the world immersive, and the plot unpredictable and surprising. If this is what Tahir has to offer in the third book of her series, I can’t wait to see what she does in the finale! This book is easily one of the best I’ve read so far this year. Sabaa Tahir has blown me away and will never fly under my radar again.
My Rating: 5/5