Tag: Sabaa Tahir

A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes #2)

Cover image for A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahirby Sabaa Tahir

ISBN 9781101998878

“Failure doesn’t define you. It’s what you do after you fail that determines whether you are a leader or a waste of perfectly good air.”

The Trials are over, and Marcus has been crowned the new Emperor of the Martials, with Helene Aquilla sworn to serve as his Blood Shrike despite her reservations. Elias and Laia flee the capital on a mission to free her brother, Darin, who is being held in Kauf prison. With the knowledge of how to forge Serric steel, he has the potential to change the course of the Scholar rebellion. They must figure out how to outwit Kauf’s sadistic Warden to free Darin, assuming he is still alive. But first they will need traverse half the Empire to get to him, and Helene Aquilla is on their heels. Now sworn as Blood Shrike, and with her family as hostages, she is charged with killing the traitor Elias Veturius in order to secure Marcus’ rule.

A Torch Against the Night picks up right from where An Ember in the Ashes left off, with Elias and Laia trying to flee Blackcliff in the aftermath of the Trials. There is no second-book lag here, but an immediate plunge into a high-stakes mission. The action is fast-paced, and I raced through the entire volume in twenty-four hours. Sabaa Tahir puts an additional clock on the action when Elias is poisoned, giving further urgency to their journey. Scholar rebel Keenan and escaped slave Izzi rejoin the action, forming an uneasy alliance as the group disagrees about how best to effect Darin’s rescue from the supposedly impenetrable Kauf. Keenan remains a somewhat uninspiring rival for Laia’s affections, but Izzi’s return was welcome, even if Tahir does not put her to particularly good use.

In An Ember in the Ashes, Elias and Laia alternated narration. But Helene Aquilla was one of the more intriguing secondary characters as Elias’s long-time friend and companion in arms, and the sole female student at Blackcliff. Newly sworn into her role as the Emperor’s enforcer, she must now take up the duty of hunting Elias down. Happily, this also means that Helene becomes one of the three point-of-view characters in A Torch Against the Night, and indeed she is the torch of the title. Alone in her new role, she turns to the Augurs for reassurance that she is making the right choices for her future and the future of the empire. The augur Cain assures her that she will be “no swift-burning spark” but rather, “a torch against the night.” And the only cost is that she must let herself burn. Her role as narrator provides a deeper look into her character as she is faced with these difficult decisions.

The magical elements of Tahir’s world are also coming more into evidence in this volume. Both Laia and Helene must call upon the powers they gained through their contact with the supernatural in An Ember in the Ashes. The Augurs continue to be a presence, and the nature of the Commandant’s elusive Master becomes evident. But most fascinating of all is the Soul Catcher, a creature who watches over the Waiting Place where souls cross over to the other side. As Elias fights the effects of the slow-acting poison, every time he becomes unconscious he slips into the Waiting Place where the Soul Catcher bides her time.

A Torch Against the Night proves to be a fast-pasted continuation of An Ember in the Ashes, and it continues to develop Tahir’s intriguing world and a characters. A third volume is expected in 2018.

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An Ember in the Ashes

Cover image for An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir by Sabaa Tahir

ISBN 978-1-59514-803-2

“All of these rebels, any of whom fought alongside my parents, suddenly know whose child I am. They’ll want me to be fearless and charismatic like Mother. They’ll want me to be brilliant and serene, like Father. But I am not any of those things.”

Laia is a Scholar, a member of the defeated caste that formerly ruled what is now the Martial Empire. The Scholar rebellion against their Martial rulers rages on, but Laia and her family take no part in it, eking out a meager existence in the Scholar’s Quarter, ever fearful of Martial raids. One night, their worst fears come true when a Mask—one of the Martials’ elite soldiers—shows up at their door and takes her brother Darren prisoner. In order to free Darren, Laia reaches out the Rebellion, all the while knowing that the people who betrayed her parents to their deaths may still be part of that movement. The leader of the rebellion reluctantly offers to help free Darren, but only if Laia undertakes a dangerous mission; posing as a slave, she must infiltrate Blackcliff Academy, where the Empire trains the Masks. Elias Veturius is only days away from escaping Blackcliff forever, finally getting out from under the thumb of his mother, the brutal Commandant of Blackcliff, and his grandfather, the formidable head of Gens Veturia. Then a visit from an Augur—one of the mysterious and supposedly immortal figures who founded Blackcliff—throws his plans into disarray. Ancient prophecies are coming to fruition, and Elias is caught in the middle, forced to fight for his life, even as his conscience compels him to try to save his mother’s latest slave girl from death in her service.

In alternating short chapters, Laia and Elias take turns narrating An Ember in the Ashes. The short chapters often end with cliff-hangers, making for a tantalizing and fast-paced read. Sabaa Tahir’s world is Roman-inspired, but incorporates mythology from the more eastern reaches of the Roman Empire that tend to be forgotten in favour of the Greek influences. However, most of the action takes place at Blackcliff, which is designed to be a brutal indoctrination that will create the Empire’s most effective, unquestioning soldiers, who are trained up from children. The violence is pervasive, as is the threat of sexual assault, which can be tiresome if realistic. But more than the violence and the action, it is also a story about Laia and Elias grappling with expectations, both those of their families, and those placed on their by their respective societies, and figuring out what standard they want to hold themselves to.

Elias and Laia are both intriguing, well-rounded characters, but we find others at the periphery of the story. Helene, Elias’ long-time best friend, and the only female student at Blackcliff is strong, fiery, and determined. While Blackcliff has not alienated her the way it has alienated Elias, she too is still holding on to her humanity, and hoping that by serving the Empire she can somehow make it a better place. Elias’ mother, Keris Veturia, was the only female student of her generation, but unlike Helene, she becomes a dark and vicious figure, horribly twisted by her past. The predicaments of these secondary characters intrigued me, and I longed to get inside their heads and experience their point of view as well as that of Elias and Laia. Happily, it sounds like Helene will feature prominently in A Torch Against the Night, due out in August 2016.

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