Pages and Pods: An Ember in the Ashes Quartet and The Hidden Djinn

My story with these books starts mid pandemic. It was sometime during the summer when I was hungry for books and low on cash. Thankfully, my local library network is extensive, and I am easily satiated. I was actively looking for more big, fantasy, escapism books. As a rule I would rather suffer at the hands of words than think of the real problems in the world. Boy, did this book series satisfy my need for suffering at the hands of words. 

I came across An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir and fell in love within paragraphs. The world building is magnificent, the characters vibrant, and the plot thickens and twists more than a nest of snakes. It has ripped my heart out and put it in again with each paper pound torture device we call a book. 

The library only had the first two books: An Ember in the Ashes and A Torch Against the Night. I could have bought the series but at the time I made a decision. When the final book came out in December- I would buy all four and not have the separation anxiety. I bought the quartet two at a time, and devoured them in about a week. 

Tahir’s storytelling is beyond most of what I have witnessed in my literary life. The world is deftly created, harkening to familiar (to me) and unfamiliar (to me) structures that create this blend of humanity. The struggles are real: cultural and racial differences lead to war and conflict. The heartbreak and joys are human, yet amplified by magic and the other-worldly. Through these four books we are brought to the brink of death, beyond, and back again. All through the lives of four children born into this war. It is rated 14+. Potential trigger warnings include: death, war, sexual assault, and general existential anxiety. Not going to lie, this series can be rough. 

Synopsis: 

Laia and Darin are Scholars, the lower class of the Empire. Some are slaves, some are free, but none are truly safe in the Empire. When Darin comes home with a notebook full of Martial secrets, Laia knows something is going on and it is something that puts their entire family in danger. When the Mask comes, Laia runs: leaving her family to the fate of the Empire. She soon runs into the Resistance, a group of Scholars who are bent on bringing down the Empire. Laia may not know them, but they certainly know who her mother is as she demands their help rescuing her brother from the Empire’s clutches. 

They send her to Blackcliff, the Empire’s elite military school to spy on the cruel Commandant. Just in time for the Trials. Brought forward by the Augurs- the immortal mystical beings that create the Empire from beyond, Helene and Elias are two of four destined to rise to the highest reaches of the Empire’s power or die in the process. Best friends from the beginning of their time at Blackcliff, Helene and Elias are two of the best products of the school. Their only difference being Helene believes wholeheartedly in the Empire, and Elias wants to do nothing but escape it. 

These three are plunged into an age old struggle between worlds that they thought didn’t even exist. They have no choice but to fight to stop it all, or let the world be destroyed in the wake of lifetimes of suffering. 

—-

I ache for more of Laia, Elias, and Helene- but I also feel satiated. Their stories are exquisitely wrapped up in A Sky Beyond the Storm and I am content with my imaginings of their life beyond these books. The only thing that I found myself searching for in my reading was the idea of the jinn. 

To my very WASPy background, I only ever had a vague idea of what they were/meant to be. Most of my interactions with the name have come from fiction- and like in Sabaa Tahir’s work, they are always more or less the djinn we see in Middle Eastern cultures. Google searches never seemed like enough to really satisfy me, they more confused me. I felt like when exploring these books, I was missing a depth. The Roman structure of the Empire in these novels felt heavy and safe compared to the Scholars and the Tribal cultures built into the world. I wanted to learn about what the jinn truly are. I needed guidance. 

Enter my podcast pairing:

The Hidden Djinn. A podcast from IHeartRadio and Grim and Mild by Aaron Mahnke. Narrated by Rabia Chaudry, it is overall a relaxing podcast to listen to. It feels like sitting at a bonfire with an excellent storyteller (or Kehanni if you have read An Ember in the Ashes). There are trigger warnings for every specific episode, but some TWs include sexual assault and unhelpful discussions of mental health. As in, sometimes mental health isn’t treated properly because a family may believe it is a djinn.

The arc of the show is easy and fantastic to listen to. We start out with a basic idea of what the djinn are and what they do, and then we hear stories. Some episodes are more story heavy than definition heavy, and all are interesting. It is a really great podcast for someone like me, or someone who knows a little about the djinn already. We get historical context and contemporary stories. You are reminded of how culture and religion cannot be separated, many of these tales are familiar to anyone familiar with Abrahamic religions. We have Lilith and Lucifer making appearances, as well as Satan.

The production quality is high, with some background atmosphere or effects on Chaudry’s voice. It is an effective single narrator podcast with good pacing. It almost has a bedtime lull feel to it, but the content at times involves scary moments. I would not recommend this to be a bedtime podcast. Perhaps a late night podcast around Halloween, or any time of year if you like the warm spooky vibes. 

There may or may not be a second season, the last I could find was that there were negotiations happening in January of 2021. I would enjoy another season, because the stories of djinn are endless. However, I do think as a standalone season, this podcast will be successful for many years. 

Overall, listening to The Hidden Djinn really gave me a deeper appreciation for An Ember in the Ashes. I was able to go “oooh!” a lot. I felt more connected to something I don’t have much contact with in real life. I love being able to learn about different parts of the world, and how we are all incredibly different while also being astoundingly the same. 

I hope you enjoy this pairing, and let me know what you thought of either book(s) or podcast!

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