By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Sabaa Tahir, Nicole Andelfinger, and Sonia Liao to the WNDB blog to discuss A Thief Among the Trees: An Ember in the Ashes Graphic Novel and take an exclusive look at the graphic novel, which publishes on July 14, 2020.
Taking place years before the bestselling An Ember in the Ashes novel series, this standalone original graphic novel follows three young military recruits: Elias, Helene, and Tavi, during their brutal training as soldiers for the Martial Empire.
WITHIN THE EMPIRE THERE ARE NO QUESTIONS, ONLY ORDERS.
Elias, Helene and Tavi are Fivers –in training to become elite military recruits for the Martial Empire at Blackcliff Academy. When they’re sent on a dangerous mission to steal a heavily-guarded poison on Isle South, they soon find themselves up against surprising enemies — including other recruits. As the true horror of their assignment is revealed, these three will begin to confront the harrowing realities of Martial rule, their place in the system . . . and the choices they must make to survive.
New York Times bestselling author Sabaa Tahir joins writer Nicole Andelfinger and artist Sonia Liao for an all-new original graphic novel revealing an early tale of Elias and Helene at Blackcliff, and a stirring standalone chapter in the An Ember in the Ashes mythology.
What was the process like collaborating on a graphic novel based on the An Ember in the Ashes series? How did you decide what part of the story to tell in this format and which characters to focus on?
Sabaa Tahir: The collaboration was a delight. Both Nicole and Sonia are thoughtful and creative and just wonderful to work with.
I get a lot of questions about Elias and Helene’s history as Blackcliff students. I also wanted to explore what they might have been asked to do as children of the Empire. So a prequel seemed perfect. This story in particular looks at the events that helped Elias eventually break free of the Empire. There was never one—they are cumulative. But this was one of the pivotal ones.
Nicole Andelfinger: Extremely exciting! An Ember in the Ashes is rich and complex in all of the best ways. Sabaa’s always had a clear vision for what this A Thief Among the Trees would entail and being able to help highlight and layout that tale in a way that helps bring in new readers as well as appeal to established fans has been an honor.
Quite honestly, a book like this is a team effort. Sabaa’s world is uniquely hers and wouldn’t exist without her guidance and mind. I would also give a shoutout to the editors at BOOM! (Amanda LaFranco and Sierra Hahn) for helping hone and craft this story to being the absolute best it could be!
Sonia Liao: I was a bit worried over working on a book for an existing series, but the coordination between Nicole, Sabaa, and the editors at BOOM! really made it a non-issue. By the time the script arrived in my inbox, a lot of the nuances related to the books had already been hammered out! Sabaa also provided an excellent sheet of character descriptions for me to draw from, and both she and the editors were very good at pointing out any world-related inconsistencies in the backgrounds in the sketch stage.
Do you hope to expand the story and world from the series beyond this trilogy of graphic novels in the future?
ST: Yes! I have an unending amount of source material in my head, so an expansion would be fun.
NA: Probably a better question for Sabaa!
SL: I wouldn’t mind working on more An Ember in the Ashes stories! Since we’ve already started brainstorming ways to visually showcase the Empire’s ideals—for example, the uniformity of all the students—there’s definitely a lot more design work that can be done. It all depends on the script and where Nicole and Sabaa want to take it though!
Are there any storytelling challenges unique to working on a prequel to a series? How did you work with those challenges in A Thief Among the Trees? What do you hope this graphic novel does that other prequels to existing series don’t?
NA: Sabaa’s the real genius behind the story of A Thief Among the Trees. Though I will say that I’m extremely excited for this graphic novel to bring in new fans and readers to the book series. Sabaa’s world is beautiful and haunting in the very best ways, and Sonia’s art is engaging, bringing expression and emotion to every scene.
SL: To be honest, as someone who hadn’t read the original novels prior to this project, I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what characters like Elias and Helene are like. To me, they really are just young teenagers struggling with their own sense of morality. As for what I hope this prequel can accomplish…I think it strikes a balance between appealing to new readers who can use this as an introduction to An Ember in the Ashes universe and appealing to fans who can fully enjoy the added lore and new visuals. As someone belonging to the former, I found the story self-contained enough for even people unfamiliar with the books to enjoy. Nicole and Sabaa have done a great job establishing both the characters and the setting without over-explaining. The book also has its own story beats that provide some resolution.
What was it like getting to know Elias, Helene, and Tavi from before the start of An Ember in the Ashes? How does a prequel allow you to go deeper into a character’s backstory (and world-building-backstory) than you might otherwise be able to in the series?
ST: It was very enlightening, and helped me understand them better. A lot of readers see Elias and Helene only through the lens of Ember, but knowing their whole histories has always made me see them a little bit differently. The prequel allowed me to dig deep into their psyches and discover a few things about them that I didn’t know before.
NA: One of my favorite things in novels—especially seen in An Ember in the Ashes series—is seeing characters grow and change. Prequels allow this same thing, but it’s often starting at a very different place in their life. A Thief Among the Trees brings us faces we know and love, but without the refinement we see at the point where Ember starts. Quite honestly, getting to see the raw points of our main cast like this, in my opinion, adds to the depth that already exists in the main series by showing just how brutal and unrelenting this world Elias, Helene, and Tavi live in is. It gives even more definition to why Ember starts where it does, and serves as a reminder of just what the backdrop consists of.
SL: Prequels can be a great place to provide a foundation for a character’s goals, ideals, motivations. I think this book ultimately expands upon the relationship between Elias and Helene—how close they once were and how fundamentally similar their morals were before tragedy struck.
How could you explore new aspects of this series, this world, and these characters in a graphic novel format that might be missing from a narrative novel? Were there aspects of world-building and scene-setting from writing narrative stories that you missed being able to use in this format?
ST: On a basic level, the graphic novel allowed me to explore a new setting. It was great to go to Isle South, a place we see on the Ember maps but never visit in the series. The lushness of that world is more richly conveyed through Sonia’s stunning art. Additionally, I think focusing on the conversations and the silences in between lets us see the characters in a new way. Helene’s childishness is thrown into relief, as is Tavi’s struggle and Elias’s weakness. It’s possible to do that in narrative of course, but this allows us to convey it in a fresh way.
Exposition is always fun. But I did the outline—which allowed for a lot of exposition. Nicole had the unenviable job of having to convey it all through script, and Sonia through the images. So I got off easy!
NA: Art in both written and visual form is powerful. When you combine them, however? It’s a wonderful convergence of show and tell. Sonia’s art really draws out the heart of Sabaa’s environments and characters. We can see expressions but also practically feel the environments we find ourselves in. I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out to Mike’s fantastic lettering and Kieran’s phenomenal coloring; both are integral to making this book as meaningful as it is. You’re going to get chills from A Thief Among the Trees!
SL: There are a lot of differences between graphic novels and narrative novels! Being able to see the characters and setting brings about a whole host of unforeseen problems—what designs should we give the adults to make them distinct from the Fivers? How do we communicate uniformity but still make each character visually distinct? How do you adjust the pacing with pictures rather than words? To be honest, it was Nicole and Sabaa who had to struggle most with this part; once I got the uniform designs approved, I could focus entirely on just drawing everything out.
What other novels, graphic novels and otherwise, do you think the An Ember in the Ashes series is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for other novels you’d read and loved, both published and upcoming?
ST: These days, I am mostly doing comfort reads—finding old favorites and sinking back into them. Those include Saga as well as the Legend graphic novel series.
NA: Ember is very much a conversation on societal status quo and the institutions and system that benefit a few over the many; there’s a lot said within the world that parallels our own. As for recommendations? I’m currently reading the Delilah Dirk series by Tony Cliff, Black by Kwanza Osajyefo and Jamal Igle, and Ghosted in LA by Sina Grace and Siobahn Keenan. I’m also looking forward to Wynd by James Tynion IV and Michael Dialynas! (I read a lot of comics right now…)
SL: I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I haven’t cracked open a real book, comic or otherwise, in a long time. The ones I have read aren’t really in the same genre as the An Ember in the Ashes series—basically a lot of superhero trades and fantasy comics. Most of the popular stories coming out right now are more fantastical in nature, but that spirit of readers discovering a new world and culture is comparable. Books like the Amulet series or 5 Worlds come to mind, with a bit more Hunger Games dystopia mixed into the world of An Ember in the Ashes. I’m not really caught up with anything up and coming, though, so I hope Nicole and Sabaa have more recommendations!
Sabaa Tahir is the author of the An Ember in the Ashes series. She grew up in California’s Mojave Desert at her family’s eighteen-room motel. There, she spent her time devouring fantasy novels, raiding her brother’s comic book stash, ad playing guitar badly. She began writing while working nights as a newspaper editor. She likes thunderous indie rock, garish socks and all things nerd. This is Sabaa’s first graphic novel collaboration.
Since her early days creating fantastical adventures for her plastic animals, Nicole Andelfinger has always had a deep love for the power of storytelling. A voracious reader even to this day, you can usually find her reading comics, books, and, in a pinch, the back of cereal boxes. These days, she channels her imagination into writing comics. Having brought to life many beloved characters in titles such as Adventure Time, Regular Show, Steven Universe, and more, she’s eager to continue to exploring new worlds.
Sonia Liao is a comic artist based in Westford, Massachusetts. After graduating from MICA with her BFA in Illustration, she completed an internship at Fablevision and began life as a freelance artist. She’s done work for publishers such as Sourcebook Fire, Red 5 Comics and Global Tinker. She owns a naughty dog named Luca.
Alaina Leary (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.