This is the first time I am sitting down to review Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against The Night, the second book of her debut series, An Ember In The Ashes. However, I have read this book a thousand times before, and with every re-read, the story just gets better.
If you haven’t read An Ember In The Ashes before, I highly recommend you read it, and make sure to check out my review here first because this review contains mild spoilers for the first book.
Elias and Laia are running for their lives. After the events of the Fourth Trial, Martial soldiers hunt the two fugitives as they flee the city of Serra and undertake a perilous journey through the heart of the Empire.
Laia is determined to break into Kauf—the Empire’s most secure and dangerous prison—to save her brother, who is the key to the Scholars’ survival. And Elias is determined to help Laia succeed, even if it means giving up his last chance at freedom.
But dark forces, human and otherworldly, work against Laia and Elias. The pair must 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.
Ratings: 5 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: death, genocide, rape/sexual assault (mentioned), torture, violence, slavery
There’s quite a lot to love about Sabaa Tahir’s thrilling sequel of the Ember Quartet. The first book of the series, An Ember In The Ashes, left us on an epic cliffhanger: Elias and Laia were on the run, Helene had become the Blood Shrike for Emperor Marcus–the very same man who had constantly threatened to rape her throughout the first book, and the Scholar Uprising had failed.
The book picks up right there, moments after Elias and Laia escape, and from the very first page, the story is fast-paced, intense, and heartwrenching at the same time. There is never a dull moment throughout the book, not when the main characters have so much at stake.
What I enjoyed the most though was the way Sabaa Tahir slowly unveiled the plot and challenged her own characters to grow throughout the novel. As I said before, the plot is very fast-paced, and with every new crisis, we see our characters being pushed to their limits, forced to make difficult choices that test their strength.
For instance, when Elias makes the decision to help Laia succeed in her mission of saving her brother, he is at a difficult crossroads: how does he protect Laia without killing more people?
For Laia, the damsel in distress, escaping the Commandant with Elias was just the beginning: not only does she have to orchestrate the perfect plan to rescue her brother, but she must also overcome her fear of violence, of the Martials and be smarter than her enemies. While a lot of readers may find her struggles annoying, I found her growth to be realistic; after all, one simply does not transform into a soldier after years of living a sheltered and privileged life.
And watching the way Elias and Laia both help each other become the better version of themselves was the highlight of the book for me. I loved how their romance wasn’t just chemistry–they had a solid foundation of trust, friendship, and respect for each other which only grew with every danger they fought off together.
Helene’s story on the other hand broke me. She is my least favorite character, for she is unbearably racist and classist, and I personally do not have the patience for characters who, even in adulthood, choose to ignore their internal prejudices.
Yet, you cannot help but love her strength as she tries to protect herself, her people, and her family from the antics of a mad Emperor and a cunning, power-hungry Commandant. You cannot help but admire her brief moments of goodness when she is compassionate towards Laia and Elias–it was these little details that made me feel that Sabaa Tahir has more in store for Helene’s character growth and I cannot wait to see it happen.
In some ways, Helene’s character growth reminded me a lot of Zuko’s from Avatar: The Last Airbender, but in Helen’s case, my patience wears thin, for Zuko was just a teenager while Helene is a twenty-something adult woman.
As for the antagonists, the dreaded Commandant and the mysterious Nightbringer are hands down some of the best fictional villains I have read about. My only disappointment is that the second book focused so much on the character development of Helene, Elias, and Laia, that we could not learn enough about the villain’s backstories. I was personally hoping to learn more about the Commandant, how she came to be the power-hungry, sadistic monster she is now, and why she hated Elias so.
However, A Torch Against The Night isn’t just memorable because of its main characters or the action-packed plot. The book also features several supporting characters, who, as the story progresses, become unforgettable on their own rights: Harper, Helene’s torturer-turned second-in-command is one. Livia, Helene’s beloved sister is another. But there are several others who steal the thunder too: Afya Ara Nur, Mamie Ralie, and even the despicable Marcus Zarrar.
A thrilling sequel to an incredibly riveting series, A Torch Against The Night is ultimately a story about strength in the face of unknown danger, compassion in the face of violence, and it explores themes of slavery, racism, and colonialism through the experiences of incredibly well-developed characters. Add Sabaa Tahir’s gripping narration and vivid imagery to that, and you have a fantastic novel about finding light even in the darkest of times.
~ More From Sabaa Tahir ~
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