Sabaa Tahir and Renée Ahdieh Ply Young-Adult Fantasy With Middle Eastern Lore | Reading | Indy Week
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Sabaa Tahir and Renée Ahdieh Ply Young-Adult Fantasy With Middle Eastern Lore 

The roots of Arabian science fiction run as deep as those of the golden age of Islamic science and mathematics, which gave us algebra, algorithms, and names for the numeral zero and the star Aldebaran. Ibn al-Nafis wrote the theological sci-fi text Theologus Autodidactus in the thirteenth century, when the still-coalescing stories of One Thousand and One Nights already contained robots, underwater adventures, and journeys through the cosmos.

In the modern Western worlds of science fiction and fantasy, we're well steeped in a "lite" version of Arabic, Islamic, and Moorish influences—the desert landscapes of Star Wars and Dune, for example. The mainstream English speculative-fiction canon has also nodded to these influences, as in Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), Catherine Asaro's The Veiled Web (1999), and Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt (2002).

But these strains have grown even richer and more prominent lately in adult fantasy literature. The best such works published since 2011 include Howard Andrew Jones's The Desert of Souls, Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni, Salman Rushdie's Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, and G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen.

On the heels of Wilson's reimagining of Marvel Comics character Ms. Marvel as a Muslim-American teenager named Kamala Khan, it appears that young-adult fantasy with a Middle Eastern context is also poised for a golden age of its own. Among its leaders are authors Sabaa Tahir and Renée Ahdieh, who will be in conversation at Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books on Tuesday night.

click to enlarge 8.31_page_sabaa-tahir.jpg

Tahir, a former Washington Post editor now based in San Francisco, garnered acclaim with her 2015 debut novel, An Ember in the Ashes. An immediate New York Times best-seller, it was optioned—a year before its publication—by Paramount Pictures. Tahir's complex epic fantasy encompasses a vast world of empire, slavery, family, and magic, replete with sharply rendered characters and plenty of high-stakes action. After an opening chapter depicting a raid on the multigenerational home of seventeen-year-old Laia, a member of the oppressed Scholars, the book ranges from catacombs beneath the city to imperial military training grounds to a desert where Bedouin-like tribespeople eke out an existence while contending with rumors of jinn, efrits, and ghuls.

Tahir's world is not a pleasant one; its characters live under the constant threat of imprisonment, enslavement, rape, torture, and death. They also face moral choices—when to fight, when to run, when to rebel—that can change the course of a centuries-old empire. The newly released A Torch Against the Night, the second entry in a planned four-book series, picks up at breakneck speed where An Ember in the Ashes left off, and the stakes are even higher than personal or even familial survival.

Ahdieh, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, is a Charlotte-based author. In 2015 she published her debut novel, The Wrath & the Dawn, and it too made the New York Times best-seller list. (I also included it in my INDY roundup of 2015's best books from North Carolina.) It takes direct inspiration from One Thousand and One Nights, but its stories have little in common with the tales of Scheherazade. In Ahdieh's retelling, sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, although she is well aware that each of his previous brides—including her own best friend—has not lived to see the dawn after their wedding night. Determined that no one else should share such a fate, Shahrzad makes a vow of vengeance for the murder of her friend.

Like her namesake, Shahrzad spins stories that leave Khalid wanting more as she bides her time and looks for a moment of opportunity. But things get more complicated when she begins to suspect that she may be falling in love with this "mad boy-king" and that she must uncover the secret behind the murders in order to break the cycle of death, once and for all.

Ahdieh and Tahir share a longtime friendship, appearances in each other's acknowledgments, and a publisher: Penguin Random House, the parent company of both Razorbill and G.P. Putnam's Sons. But they share something more subtle as well: Both of them left the first books in their respective series largely unresolved. Ahdieh's The Rose & the Dagger, published earlier this year, continues from The Wrath & the Dawn, carrying the duology through to a beautiful conclusion. Next up is Flame in the Mist, the first installment of a new duology that its publisher describes as "a mash-up of Disney's Mulan and the fantasy action movie 47 Ronin." May 2017 can scarcely come soon enough.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Golden Age"

  • The two authors discuss their work at Quail Ridge Books on Tuesday, Sept. 6.

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