I actually got my hands on an ARC of this in June, but have been waiting until it came out (TODAY WOO HOO!) to officially review since it’s gotten a lot of chatter and I didn’t want people to think I’d be spoiling it. This is spoiler-free for Torch, BTW, but hopefully it’ll convince you to go pick it up. If you haven’t read the first book, An Ember in the Ashes, the next two paragraphs are safe if you’d like a little teaser. After that, it’ll spoil the ultimate outcome of Ember, though not the plot particulars.
When An Ember in the Ashes, came out in April 2015, it raised an immediate furor from readers who fell in love with Sabaa Tahir’s powerful storytelling and compelling characters. Largely believed to be a standalone (though in reality Tahir simply hadn’t been signed for additional installments yet), fans clamored for more with a persistence that took Ember to the no. 2 spot on the New York Times young adult best-seller list. Relief has at last been delivered in A Torch Against the Night, which takes the world introduced in Ember to new, incredible heights.
In Ember, readers watched a deadly contest to become the next emperor of the Romanesque Martial Empire unfold between four students at the brutal Blackcliff Academy. We also met Laia, who was planted as a slave at Blackcliff to spy on the academy’s cruel Commandant for a rebel movement in exchange for their help in freeing her brother from prison. If you don’t want Ember spoiled for you, stop here.
On to Torch!
A Torch Against the Night picks up immediately where Ember left its cliff-hanger ending: the sadistic Marcus has been named Emperor, and Helene is forced to hunt down her best friend, Elias, after taking second in the contest and swearing fealty to Marcus as his Blood Shrike. At the outset of Torch, Elias and Laia are fleeing through the tunnels of Serra to begin their quest to break Laia’s older brother out of the fortress that is Kauf prison.
While Ember was told from Elias and Laia’s perspectives, Torch adds Helene as a point of view. This allows us to see both sides of the manhunt that dominates this book, and adds incredible depth to readers’ view of the Empire. When she isn’t in the field tracking down Elias with dogged persistence, Helene has to navigate the tension-laden politics of the Imperial court in an effort to protect her family, appease Marcus and dodge the Commandant, who would love nothing more than to see the Empire’s only other female Mask fail miserably. Helene’s struggle with her deeply ingrained sense of loyalty was one of the most compelling things about this book. Seeing inside her head transforms her from merely being a willing player in the Empire’s brutality to a conflicted soul called to such great sacrifice that you will weep for her.
While Helene was the star of Torch for me, the other major players develop in equal depth. Laia continues to grow in her fledgling courage, and learning to have confidence in her own decisions colors her character arc. Elias is tired of being an instrument of pain and death as a Mask, but he can’t shake the way he seems to attract violence. Even the incredibly despicable Marcus is more than a flat antagonist. His life-altering actions in the Third Trial of Ember continue to haunt him, setting the predatory Emperor on a road to madness that wars with his coldly calculating mind.
The story is rounded out with a great supporting cast that includes known quantities like Keenan, Izzi, Cook and the Commandant, along with new friends and foes from the ranks of the Imperial Black Guard and the nomadic Tribesmen Elias was raised by. Previous hints of Elias’s childhood are fleshed out into a distinct culture that includes his indomitable foster mother and Afya, a fierce yet largely untested tribal leader who is essentially strong-armed into helping Elias and Laia.
A Torch Against the Night is anything but a cookie-cutter sequel. The centralized story of Ember explodes to span the entire Empire, from the dusty Tribal desert to the frozen mountains surrounding Kauf and the eerie Forest of Dusk. Hints of magic, unearthly beings and dark forces are brought to the forefront, hitting readers with a multi-faceted conflict that is much more than just a quest to save Laia’s brother. The stereotypical love triangles set up in Ember are blown to pieces in ways no one will expect, leaving the characters involved open to discover their destinies in unique and heart wrenching ways that transcend straightforward teenage romances.
Simply put, A Torch Against the Night is a masterful follow-up to An Ember in the Ashes. While it ends in a bittersweet but satisfactory manner, there are plenty of new questions and ancient conflicts still to be resolved. Luckily for fans, Tahir recently announced that she has been signed for two more books. This is great news, because I genuinely believe this world has enough material to easily sustain two more books, hopefully all with the same richness of character and driving, twisting plot that characterizes A Torch Against the Night.