A Torch Against the Night (AEITA #2) by Sabaa Tahir
Published by Penguin Teen
YA, Fantasy, Romance
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.
“So long as you fight the darkness, you stand in the light.”
TW : violence, genocide, murder
A Torch Against the Night is the second book of a quartet series by Sabaa Tahir, a stunning sequel to a phenomenal debut novel, An Ember in the Ashes. In this book, the author continues Elias and Laia’s adventure after they escape Blackcliff, now wanted with a price on their heads. With the Scholar’s rebellion brewing tensions are high as they escape the night to save Darin from Kauf.
Before I start my review I would like to recap on what happened in An Ember in the Ashes. In the first book, we follow Elias’ and Laia’s perspective. Elias is a Martial boy and a Mask, he is about to graduate to being a full fledged Mask. Throughout the story, Elias struggles with his life living as a Mask. He is ready to rid of himself from the killing and blood shed. Until the current Emperor dies, he is then chosen by the Augurs to undergo a gruelling trial to become the Emperor battling his best friend, Helene Aquila, and two other Masks, Markus and Zak Farrar. Elias then meets Laia, a scholar girl with a destroyed family as her grandparents are murdered and her brother, Darin, is captured by the Empire for treason. Laia is determined to save her only family from execution. She infiltrates Blackcliff, a stronghold where they train Mask and where she will disguise herself as slave. Her journey is full of challenges as she becomes a slave for the Commandant, Keris, a woman that holds authority over Blackcliff with a taste for blood. Elias grows fond of Laia and the two became close. During the end of the trial, Elias’ life is threatened, hearing this Laia attempts to save him knowing he is the only person that can help her save Darin.
Continuing the premise of the first book, the stakes are higher as Elias and Laia are on the run. Elias is a wanted man and Laia is the Scholar girl that helped him escape his death. Starting the story, they are exactly where the last book left off, in the tunnels under Blackcliff as they attempt to escape Serra. It is utter chaos in Serra, as they both make their escape, the Scholar Resistance revolted that night after the new emperor is chosen. Serra is burning and the streets are bloody, in the middle of it all Elias and Laia running away from Masks that is out to get them. They have no time to waste as they escape the city nearly unscathed to the dessert.
The author introduces a new point of view in the story from Helene, the new Blood Shriek and a key player in this second book. As a character, Helene’s presence in the first book is strong and very well fleshed out. Her strong personality is broken to pieces in this book as she is thrown into her duties as Blood Shriek. Helene’s character developed much more than the two main characters, Elias and Laia. Her family is in shambles, her reputation is on the line, and to top it all off she has to track then kill her best friend. Helene’s pain and suffering is felt deeply, I always anticipated her POV more than Elias’ or Laia’s. As I am more invested in seeing her succeed in her new role as Blood Shriek. Helene’s arc from start to end puts me at the edge of my seat. The challenges that she has to face and her enemies, especially the Commandant, is anticipating to she her fail. Throughout her arc, there is a sense of dread that is the unravelling of her as a character. Sabaa Tahir slowly builds up Helene the Blood Shriek by breaking down the Helene Aquilla we know from the first book. Piece by piece she is unmade and made a new, her presence in this book feels like a totally different character and I am living for it! Sabaa Tahir definitely didn’t hold back in pushing Helene’s character to her limits.
“But you, Helene Aquilla, are no swift-burning spark. You are a torch against the night – if you dare to let yourself burn.”
“But you are not finished. You are my masterpiece, Helene Aquilla, but I have just begun. If you survive, you shall be a force to be reckoned with in this world. But first you will be unmade. First, you will be broken.”
After reading the first book there is an underlying political prose within the story. The oppression of the Scholar under the rule of the Empire. In An Ember in the Ashes, there are moments that is written by the author depicting the treatment the Martials give towards Scholars. They aren’t allowed education and destined to live a life to be sold or used as slaves. After the events of the first book, the newly appointed Emperor commands the Commandant to squash the Scholar rebellion to secure his political power. The Commandant, a woman that views the Scholars as mere vermin takes it upon herself to cleanse the Empire of their presence, not far from the real life incidents in the world we live in. Sabaa Tahir brought the difficult conversation of slavery and oppression to the surface to spark conversation through the Elias’ and Laia’s story. Which is brilliantly captivating! The story still centers around the two main characters relationship and development, these underlying tones adds an edge to their story and makes it even more interesting for readers to root for them.
“You are a torch against the night – if you dare to let yourself burn.”
A Torch Against the Night is a fast paced story and Sabaa Tahir’s writing can pull you into the story leaving you breathless for more. I finished reading this book in a span of three to four days and I enjoyed the story from start to end. Like the first book, Sabaa Tahir did not shy away from the violence and the harsh realities of oppression. The writer paints a vivid picture of an uprising brewing in An Ember in the Ashes and in this sequel the writer paints a much more gruesome picture. The consequences from the first book bleeds into the second book resulting in a blood bath done by the Martials to oppress the Scholars even further. This blood bath is lead by the main villain herself, Keris Verturius. As the biggest antagonist of the story, Keris is ruthless and unforgiving. Readers will easily dislike Keris and she makes for a great villain. But my thoughts will be the same as my previous review, I hoped Keris would develop more with her characterization. Throughout the story this wasn’t fully realized as she has less presence in the story as we mostly get to see Keris in Helene’s POV. Her acts of violence also escalates as she is tasked to crush the Scholar rebellion. Keris takes it upon herself to kill each living Scholar she comes across. The problem with such horrific acts of a character is the intent of writing such acts into the book for the story with purpose. One specific thing that Keris does still gnaws on me as I could piece together what is the purpose of her killing Scholars besides purely hating their existence and being the oppressed. Mind you the depiction of violence is quite graphic for a YA book, so trigger warnings for readers that have issues with this.
In my review of the first book, I commented on Elias’ and Laia’s character development and how their development was not believable. I’ve come to understand these issues and I anticipated for the second book to improve on it. Since it was the first book the development of the characters aren’t fully realized yet. There are improvements in their development in this book and I am happy to see it. Elias and Laia goes on a journey together across the dessert to reach Kauf and through out their journey they experience many horrific events. Laia has grown to be much braver than the first book, she isn’t afraid to pick up a weapon and fight. There are many moments where she shows her bravery to tackle everything head first. It is truly inspiring and I can understand that her strength will inspire many readers. Elias showed more emotion and thought in his perspective (besides thinking about how beautiful Laia is). His actions and decisions to help Laia cemented him to be a well fleshed out leading man for other readers that love to see a selfless hero. For me though, I am not fully invested yet in the Elias x Laia ship.
The build up for the climax is monumental to the plot of A Torch Against the Night as it is the tipping point of the story. As the story progressed reaching this tipping point the story fell flat as the ending is too similar and predictable as the first book. The twist isn’t delivered in a satisfying manner, as it feels as though the author is in a rush to tie up loose ends instead of slowly pacing the reveal of the twist. The conclusion of plot towards the end of the book is eerily similar to the previous book. Both main of the main characters problems seems to be conveniently resolved making it hard for me to believe their development. The fast pacing is a good way to grip readers into the story and to not put the book down. In this case the fast pace also lead to many loose ends and made me raise a lot of questions while reading.
The world finally expands and we get to see different parts, such as the Rooster, the assembly of the Tribes, and the prison where Darin is held captive, Kauf. The most interesting place that is introduced into the story is the Forgetting Place, where the Soul Catcher lives, a haunted forest where the spirit of the dead wanders to be guided by the Soul Catcher so they can pass on to the next life peacefully. The introduction of the Soul Catcher added a mystical aura into the story. Aside from a few additional expansions, there isn’t much for world building as this book invest more in character dynamics and romance. Which placed the world building as a background to the story. There is a brief explanation about the world before the Martial’s rule, the history of the Djinn’s demise and how the Nightbringer has come to avenge his people. We get to glimpse a little bit of magic as Laia gains the ability to turn invisible, a power that is awakened after she is attacked by an ifrit in the first book. The magic system is still quite confusing and there aren’t enough explanations for me to grasp how the magic works. I’ve come to the conclusion that in this series magic is a tool used to help characters in certain situations and move the narrative forward. For readers that invest more in character relationship the world building shouldn’t be much of a distraction. For me personally, the world building is a huge distraction to my immersion. There are many instances when the author could broaden the exploration of the world as I craved more of the world to compensate for my lack of connection with the two main characters.
My final thoughts for this review is that I can wholeheartedly say that this series isn’t for me. This sequel is written well and improved on the things I have issues with in the first book. It is very unfortunate that I could not love the series as much as other readers that do. I am not discouraged to stop reading the series because I will continue reading the third book. I will push my way through as I want to see how things will wrap up in the last two books, A Reaper at the Gates and soon to be released, A Sky Beyond the Storm. Sabaa Tahir’s writing is addicting and each book is written well to the point it’s hard to put down the book. As a reader I had high hopes for this series and I’m saddened that it didn’t work out for me. I still highly recommend for everyone to read this series, it didn’t work out for me maybe it will appeal to other readers that love a fast paced romance fantasy like An Ember in the Ashes.