Title: A Torch Against the Night
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Genre: Young Adult, Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Rating: ★★★★☆ | 4.0 out of 5.0
I wasn’t actually sure if I wanted to read this. The first novel I enjoyed immensely, but as with all series, time mellows the fires of passion, and you’re left with the embers of a dying devotion to a book you don’t really remember too much about. I just wasn’t sure if I was ready to spend money on this novel. AND THEN. The heavens parted, the stars opened and poured their lights upon the parched winter soil, and it turned out that my friend had an ARC of A Torch Against the Night that she was willing to loan me, and then I didn’t have to worry about the problem anymore. Huzzah!
A Torch Against the Night picks up immediately after An Ember in the Ashes, with Laia and Elias escaping the city with a half-baked plan to free Laia’s brother Darin from the notorious Kauf Prison. It can be a little jarring to pick up here, in large part because I’d forgotten what had happened leading up to it. The specifics of their escape, the people who helped and hindered them, even the Scholar rebellion were all totally forgotten, and diving back in was something of a challenge.
Even so, it didn’t take long for me to find my bearings again, and to really remember what it was about the first novel that impressed both myself and Mod R, who had written our initial review of An Ember in the Ashes. In AEITA, Tahir develops a city and a school that feels nuanced and real, even as I was initially leery of ethnic names like “Scholar” and “Martial” and “Trader.” The world never feels as simple as those names may lead you to believe, and while it’s clear Tahir takes a lot of inspiration from the Roman Empire, it never feels directly analogous to Rome.
ATATN expands this world and its social structures significantly, taking us deep into the Empire in the quest to Kauf Prison. The scope of the world’s geography, its history, ethnic diversity (and subsequent ethnic tension), its lore––these feel developed and never fall back on tired cliches of empire. The world Tahir crafts feels original, one entirely of her own making.
Tahir also expands significantly on her characters. Through the course of the novel, they all undergo significant journeys towards their fates––some good, some bad––but change is necessary to reflect the changing world they live in. The Commandant’s true goals and her relationship to the shadowy figure she seems to serve are expanded upon greatly, as are Elias’ connection to the Traders and the question of his parentage. Laia’s role as a leader to her people comes to the forefront as she attempts to navigate what it means to be the daughter of revolutionaries, and Helene’s role as Blood Shrike to the Empire leads her to question––and ultimately make devastating decisions about––her own integrity and values.
In such a rich, layered world, it’s so important that the text itself be unobtrusive, which it is. This sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it isn’t. It’s a feat of skill when writing is able to disappear so seamlessly into the story that, rather than standing as its own Thing, it becomes a supporter of the text. It’s one of my favourite things about the Queen’s Thief series (my favourite book series), and it’s one of my favourite things here. Both obtrusive and unobtrusive texts are impressive––what’s important is what it’s trying to accomplish and that it’s done well, which it is here, when used as a medium through which to carry plot and characterisation. The thing that did break the rhythm of the writing, though, were the three POVs that ran through the story.
I understand the necessity––Laia, Elias, and Helene have divergent stories that are equally important to both plot and character development, and there is no possible way to leave out even one of them. In practice, though, what this led to was confusing time jumps (often with a space of months between characters’ narratives) and a sense of disjuncture within the plot. The timeline becomes extremely difficult to follow at points, and I would sometimes feel the desire to skip over certain perspectives because I got caught up in one thread, only to be dumped unceremoniously into another.
Despite this, the narrative does function as a cohesive whole, and this is in large part due to the continuity of characterisation. The three main characters grow and change a lot in conjunction to their motivations. Laia’s heritage as a Scholar and as the daughter of revolutionaries propels her to take greater agency and responsibility for her people. Her desire to berak her brother out of Kauf also takes on meaning beyond wanting to save the last of her family. Helene, on the other hand, finds herself increasingly caged by the expectations placed on her by Marcus, the new Emperor, and her family, who are used to threaten her into submission. For such a physically powerful character, she becomes increasingly stripped of agency as she tries to be true both to the Empire and to her heart, and she ultimately finds she must sacrifice what is worth the most to her in order to be who she must be to survive. Elias, meanwhile, finds himself caught between worlds––stuck between past and present, stuck between his heritage and his beliefs, stuck between the past he no longer wants and a future he’s not sure of.
Their transformations are believable and, at times, heartbreaking. So even though the experience of reading was jerky, the emotional centre was stable.
There were things I wish were handed better. A lot of the sex in the novel left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly given just how prevalent sexual assault was in the first novel, and how much of a threat that was presented as. Even when we are told that it was a choice, the “choice” aspect feels decidedly hollow when it occurs under deception and duress. The way it was handled in this novel may be a result of some of the criticism the first novel got about its use of sexual violence to create a gendered threat, but reading it in ATATN didn’t put me at ease.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. It took me a while to get into because I’d forgotten so much about the first novel, but if you remember An Ember in the Ashes with any fondness, I highly recommend you check this next installment out.