Title: A Torch Against the Night (2016)
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Read: 24th – 30th June 2018
Genre: young-adult; fantasy
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“After the events of the Fourth Trial, Martial soldiers hunt Elias and Laia as they flee the city of Serra. Laia and Elias are determined to break into the Empire’s most secure and dangerous prison to save Laia’s brother, even if for Elias it means giving up his last chance at freedom. They will have to fight every step of the way to outsmart their enemies: the bloodthirsty Emperor Marcus, the merciless Commandant, the sadistic Warden of Kauf, and, most heartbreaking of all, Helene, Elias’s former friend and the Empire’s newest Blood Shrike. Bound to Marcus’s will, Helene faces a torturous mission of her own, one that might destroy her: find the traitor Elias Veturius and the Scholar slave who helped him escape … and kill them both.” (Synopsis from the publisher)
* It goes without saying but, as this is a sequel to the first novel An Ember in the Ashes, there will be spoilers for the events/ending of the first book within this review. However, there will not be specific spoilers for the events, or ending, of A Torch Against the Night. *
After the cliffhanger ending at the end of the first book, An Ember in the Ashes, it was wholly unsurprising to find that Sabaa Tahir would be writing a second book – in fact, it would be physically impossible not to want to find out what happened to Elias and Laia. The sequel, A Torch Against the Night, opens immediately with an element of danger and paranoia- they are not home and dry yet, first they must escape from Blackcliff successfully and evade capture by the very soldiers who are trained to hunt down fugitives. In this way, the book hits the ground running, and although the pace seems to slow drastically in the middle-section, I never felt like Elias and Laia were safe so my heart was constantly in my mouth as I worried for their safety at every stage of their journey.
“Elias and Laia are each other’s countermelodies. I am just a dissonant note.”
Their journey is into the beating heart of the Empire, as Laia’s desire to break her brother free from Kauf, one of the most secure and deadliest prisons in the land, becomes their mission in this second book. With Darin’s rescue will come the survival of their social group, the Scholars, and may well secure their chance at revolution because Darin knows the secret to the one thing which guarantees the supremacy of the Martial rulers – the secret to Serric steel and, therefore, making weapons. This plot thread which was only briefly introduced as a minor note of An Ember in the Ashes is now deftly thrust into the limelight by Sabaa Tahir’s expert plotting. It becomes a twofold story – on the one hand, we have the story of Elias and Laia working to evade capture from the Masks which are hunting them (including Helene, someone who knows how Elias will think and act), and on the other hand, we have the makings of a heist, as the two fugitives must use all their shared knowledge and connections to try to pull off a jail break like no other.
“It takes only a split second for life to go horribly wrong. To fix the mess, I need a thousand things to go right. The distance from one bit of luck to the next feels as great as the distance across oceans. But, I decide in this moment, I will bridge that distance, again and again, until I win. I will not fail.”
For Elias, their newfound mission means well and truly securing his name as a traitor to his people; his intimate knowledge of the guard patterns and protocols of Kauf are what will (hopefully) help them both to not only break into the prison, but also escape unscathed and with Darin in tow. As any reader might imagine, it is going to be far from easy, physically or emotionally, for them to pull this off and more and more people are drawn into their rescue efforts including, pleasingly, the desert tribes who raised Elias when he was abandoned as a newborn in the desert by the Commandant long before the start of An Ember in the Ashes. With their inclusion, we get a glimpse into an entirely different culture and social dynamic, and learn some of Elias’ past which was previously brushed over in the first novel, thereby rounding him out as a character and allowing for the stakes to be raised even higher when the people he considers family are drawn into the firing line.
“Don’t lock yourself away from those who care about you because you think you’ll hurt them or they’ll hurt you. What point is there in being human if you don’t let yourself feel anything?”
As well as expanding the physical world and exploring the cultures of the different factions in society, A Torch Against the Night also skilfully teases out the supernatural and fantasy elements that were only hinted at during An Ember in the Ashes. The presence of ghuls, as well as djinn, becomes a major plot point in this second instalment, as the supernatural elements become more tangible and explained rather than mystical and unknowable as they felt during the opening book. With this too, the Empire feels richer, as the characters navigate not just the corporeal world located in very concrete locations on a map, but also marginal spaces – this oddly serves to raise the stakes in both plains of reality, as the potential dangers are no longer just relegated to possible physical attacks by Masks or the Commandant herself and instead include (potentially) more deadly supernatural attackers or dangers. Not that A Torch Against the Night lets up on the physical dangers, however, as we are introduced to a character more disgusting and despicable than the Commandant, the Warden of Kauf prison, a man who almost gleefully whips, scars, and (I presume) abuses the young children he uses as servants, servants who are forced daily to tend to the wounds of horrifically bleeding and bruised prisoners so they don’t die of their wounds before the Warden is done torturing them, and then have to clean up the dead bodies when he does finally torture them to death. He’s disgusting in a whole different want to Keris, and is a terrifying reminder of the Martial Empire’s brutality.
“Fools pay attention to words in a fight. Warriors take advantage of them.”
Furthermore, as I mentioned in my review of An Ember in the Ashes, on re-read of that first book in the series I found I very much enjoyed the character development of Helene – I can say without a doubt that this was cranked up in A Torch Against the Night. With Helene’s new position as Blood Shrike we also come into contact with new Masks and Martials, and I particularly enjoyed the new character of Harper – something which I didn’t think I’d be saying at the start of A Torch Against the Night when he was introduced – who I hope will certainly be developed in the next books in the series. Meanwhile, Helene settles into her role as the Blood Shrike to newly crowned Emperor, Marcus, and with that comes a very delicate political and personal situation, given her not-so-pleasant history with Marcus himself, as well as a pressure to be publicly seen to be furthering the Emperor’s mission, namely in hunting down her once best friend Elias who has been deemed a traitor to the Empire itself. Unsurprisingly, Helene finds herself in an extremely trying situation and her limits and loyalties are tested, especially towards the end of the book when it becomes apparent that her choices will affect not only her own well-being, but also that of her friends and family.
” ‘There is more to this life than love, Helene Aquilla. There is duty. Empire. Family. Gens. The men you lead. The promises you make. Your father knows this. So will you, before the end.’ “
On the whole A Torch Against the Night lives up to the expectations built up in An Ember in the Ashes, and takes its characters on a whole new journey, developing plot threads teased in the first book that I didn’t realise would be so important in subsequent books. However, I must say that I found one particularly plot/character revelation to be too… obvious for my liking, so the big reveal at the heart of this book fell a bit flat for me, but that is likely because I have learnt thus far in this series to trust nothing and no one – it’s completely unsurprising to me if friends may well become foes after all in the Empire. It is because of this constant sense of paranoia and distrust, amongst a society that prides itself on different kinds of loyalty, that A Torch Against the Night, as well as An Ember in the Ashes, proves to be a compelling and addictive read. Oftentimes I literally do not know where the story will take its beloved characters, or its readers, next – but I do so love the perilous journey.
“So long as you fight the darkness, you stand in the light.”