Sabaa Tahir turned history into roots of young adult novel series

Author comes to Texas Teen Book Festival with newest in the series “A Torch Against the Night.”

The roots of the Martial Empire run back to Washington, D.C.

Back in the late ’90s, Sabaa Tahir wasn’t yet a New York Times best-selling author. She was a copy editor at The Washington Post, reading about war-ravaged nations and families ripped apart by strife.

“I read this story about women in Kashmir, how their brothers and fathers and sons were taken from them by military forces and thrown in prison,” Tahir says by phone from Oklahoma City, a stop on the tour that brings her to Austin this weekend for the Texas Teen Book Festival. “These women lived for years and years without knowing what happened to their family members. I remember walking through the parking garage and thinking that I have two older brothers and I love them, and the story really bugged me.”

That was the seed of “An Ember in the Ashes” (Razorbill/Penguin, 2015), Tahir’s story of Laia, a member of the Scholar underclass who goes undercover at the Empire’s training academy with hopes of breaking her brother out of prison, and Elias, trained as an assassin by the Empire but secretly planning to desert. Told in these characters’ alternating perspectives, “Ember” gave Tahir a chance to reimagine the stories she was reading about in her day job.

“(Laia) lives in a world that’s just as horrible, but she can fight to get her brother back,” Tahir explains.

Tahir spent more than six years researching the ancient civilizations that informed the Empire’s trappings, including ancient Rome and Sparta, and writing in the hours she could find between work and caring for her children. It took much less time for “Ember” to become a hit, earning critical acclaim and spots on numerous best-of-the-year lists. Then came the contract for the just-published sequel, “A Torch Against the Night” (Razorbill/Penguin, $19.95), which has already topped the New York Times best-seller list. Tahir’s publishers recently greenlighted two more books in the series.

“I had four books in my head from the beginning,” she said. “I wrote the books as though I was going to get to tell the whole story, but it’s really hard when you care so much about those characters and you don’t know if you’re going to get to tell their story.”

Tahir, who grew up near California’s Mojave Desert and is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, is equally passionate about bringing other authors’ stories of diverse characters into the world.

“Right now we need more,” she said. “We’ve seen some improvement but we can always use more. … I want to get to the point where we don’t need to talk about getting diverse books because they’re already out there.”

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