New York Times best-selling young adult fantasy authors Sabaa Tahir and Renée Ahdieh have more in common than their career. They also happen to be best friends who will be touring together to promote their new book releases this summer.
"Reaper at the Gates" (Razorbill, 480 pages), the third book in Tahir's "Ember in the Ashes" series, is coming out June 12. Ahdieh's "Smoke in the Sun" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 432 pages), the sequel to "Flame in the Mist," hit shelves June 5. With these close release dates, the authors are now getting to spend more time together on tour.
"Touring can be — as with a lot of things in this profession — very solitary," Ahdieh said. "It's really nice to share in the experience with someone, especially when you're close to that someone. I think the natural rapport that's there (between Sabaa and I), it makes it so what essentially is happening is we're just hanging out and inviting everybody else to hang out with us."
The two women met in 2013 when they were both releasing their first books with Penguin Random House. They started emailing each other to network, and the emails got progressively longer, then turned into phone calls. Though they live on opposite sides of the country — Tahir in the Bay Area of California and Ahdieh in North Carolina — they developed a close friendship.
"It quickly became something more than just books," Ahdieh said of their early correspondence. "It started to become life, family — and she's become one of my greatest friends in the world."
Ahdieh's mother is an immigrant from South Korea and Tahir is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, and Ahdieh thinks that's something that drew them together. They critique each other's writing as well. Ahdieh said Tahir was an "integral part" in the process of writing her new book.
"I respect her opinion very much and we both are touchstones for each other," Ahdieh said.
Tahir hopes by seeing her and Ahdieh's relationship on this upcoming tour, people will be able to see themselves in them.
"I would hope it makes people see that, hey, if you have a friend that you're writing with, maybe one day you'll be on tour with us," she said.
What Ahdieh said she most enjoys about Tahir's writing is her perfectionism.
"Every single thing she writes always has this very tight line of tension," she said. "I've watched her rewrite scenes three or four different times because even though each time I think it's fantastic, she's realizing it's not quite right. … What she's always going for is that extreme level of tension, and it's been something I love watching her do."
Tahir was a copy editor for the Washington Post when a newspaper story from a correspondent in India inspired the plot of "Ember in the Ashes." After six years of rewriting, the book ended up becoming a huge best-seller, compared to "Harry Potter" and the "Hunger Games." Paramount bought the film rights for seven figures before the book even came out.
"Reaper in the Gates" continues the stories of Laia and Elias, the star-crossed lovers, and Helene, the second in command of the Martial Empire and Elias' childhood best friend. Elias now serves as the Soul Catcher in the land between the living and the dead and must learn how to give up his own humanity to succeed in his new role. Laia finds new allies in her fight to take down the Nightbringer, who seeks revenge on humanity for locking up those of his kind, but the evil jinn is always one step ahead. Helene fights to protect the Empire from looming attack and her sister from her increasingly unstable husband, the emperor.
After spending so long perfecting "Ember in the Ashes," Tahir said it was an adjustment to have to work on a deadline and write with an editor in mind for the next two books.
What was most challenging for her in writing "Reaper at the Gates" was that it ended up more cerebral than the first two books.
"(It's hard) to keep up the pace when you're writing about emotional battles of the mind," she said. "It took me a little bit to get into that mode of writing."
The level of Tahir's success took her by surprise, but she said she mostly tries not to think about it.
"I just try to focus on writing the best books I can and being a good author by connecting with the readers … and being myself," Tahir said. "That's the biggest thing is being true to who I am as a person."
Tahir said Ahdieh is one of her favorite authors, who she also gets to be friends with.
"Renée writes with abandon," Tahir said. "She writes and you can sense her enjoyment of the world and how beautiful and complicated and delicious the world is to her. … I also think that her characterization is truly original. You don't have any flat characters in Renée's books. They're all fascinating. I want spinoffs of every one."
"Smoke in the Sun" is the second book in its duology, loosely based on the legend of Mulan and set in feudal Japan. The main character, Mariko, is pretending she still intends to marry the prince, Raiden, so she can infiltrate the imperial court and free the imprisoned man she is really in love with, Okami.
Writing about court intrigue was fun for Ahdieh, she said, and "Smoke in the Sun" is a lot more action-packed than her other books, which tended to have slow-burn plots. But she still kept the same strong world-building vibe that is in both "Flame in the Mist" and her first duology based on the Scheherazade story.
"Being able to take those cultural elements — the food, the clothing, the weapons, the atmosphere and really making a character of my own that is transportive — was something that I really want to emphasize," Ahdieh said.
In the beginning of her writing career, Ahdieh wasn't able to sell her first two books because they didn't fit the market. But she still kept writing what she wanted to, and she ended up being ahead of the resurgence in young adult historical fantasy with "The Wrath and the Dawn." For this reason, Ahdieh's main advice to aspiring writers is to not put too much stock in what other people think you should be doing.
"When you're trying to go through a creative process and you allow many different voices into your head, your voice gets stifled," she said. "Ultimately, when you're writing a book, your voice is the most important thing because that's the thing that is unique to you."