& Review: A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir. Publisher: Razorbill August 2016

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir. Publisher: Razorbill August 2016

The Book Itself: Simple, with the title dominating the cover. Two people (Elias and Laia, presumably) fleeing through a tunnel. Not a standout cover, but no slouch either.

My Review: 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.

Note: If you haven’t yet read An Ember in the Ashes, the first book in this series, I reveal a few plot points from that first installment that you might not want spoiled in this review. Proceed at your own risk 🙂

I really like and admire Tahir for writing a sequel that is very different in plot and motivation than the first book. Some series tend to use a plot event or device again and again in later books. In The Hunger Games, the games themselves happened again in Catching Fire, and in a way, yet again in Mockingjay. Plotting and heists feature prominently in both (terrific) installments of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology. In A Torch Against the Night, the stakes are higher and the adventure more encompassing of the book’s world: characters physically travel and accomplish more.

Case and point: the story is now told from three perspectives, from three difference characters sometimes going in three different directions. The book is divided into short chapters from Laia’s point of view, Elias’, and Helene’s. This might have to do with the incredible amount of love that Helene’s character drew from readers after the first book. But it does become a lot of voices and storylines in one book. I remember struggling with the two point of views in the first book: I found Elias’ storyline to much more compelling that Laia’s.

Luckily, all three storylines have high stakes and are written very well in this book. It still feels like a lot is happening, and Tahir is very good (or very bad) at leaving each short chapter on a cliffhanger so that you have to read through the other two characters’ chapters before you find a resolution to the one you’re freaking out about. The chapters were often very short – sometimes only a couple of pages long. This could get frustrating, as you got in deep to one storyline only to be yanked away too soon. But it also kept the pace and tension racing high. I could say that I would have preferred just two points of view, but I’m not sure which point of view I would have cut.

Helene’s POV storyline is heartbreaking, as she is sent after Elias, a man she loves, upon threat of violence against her family and appeasing the Emperor she now works for. The book title is actually in reference to her this time around, and at times her story is emotionally hard to read.

Elias took a turn for me in this book. In the first book, he had been turned into a killing machine for the Empire. He was haunted, complex. Here, he seems almost too good. He is almost too generous and misunderstood and wounded. Tahir tugs at the heartstrings, introducing us to his adopted family, showing how good he is with kids, and how he clearly loves Laia to a fault. On the one hand, who doesn’t want their hero/love interest to have a tough exterior but a heart of gold, but it felt a little too good to be true.

Laia is a very interesting character to me. She’s not your typical badass female heroine. She’s not brave and physically strong or crafty like a lot of authors are trying to make their female protagonists. She’s deeply flawed, and she makes a lot of mistakes. Sometimes this is to the point of annoyance, and she messes up a lot of stuff for a lot of characters. But I identify with her. I feel like she would be me, were I in these situations. I would break down emotionally, lash out, and make rash decisions in the face of such stress. I think she reacts more realistically than most fantasy characters do.

In addition to the added POV, there are also more adversaries this time around. In book one, the Commandant was the Big Bad, harming Laia, her slave, and revealing the kind of apathy and cruelty for her son that only the deepest psychopath would display. Marcus was a close second, being the one contestant you didn’t want to win the bloody contest to become the new Emperor.

And then, of course, he won. So he’s Big Bad #2 in this book. He and the Commandant show almost equal amounts of twisted, evil intent. But those two aren’t enough, apparently. Now we have the Nightbringer, the mythical being merely whispered about in the first book (and whose true identity and promise of a new storyline I didn’t particularly care for). And we have the Warden, a demented torturer of children at the prison where Laia’s brother is kept. It’s a lot of bad against our three good guys. It’s one of those insurmountable odds tales that I am always flipping pages manically to see how it ends. With so many corners backed into, how can they possibly get out again and again?!

It’s a busy book, but a quick and intense read if you were invested in the characters from the first book. I will say that I was just as frustrated with the “love rhombus” (like a love triangle, but with four characters) in this book as I was with the first. I haven’t read a whole lot of love triangles where I could see an equal chance for both pairings. They are so obviously biased towards one couple getting together, with the third person just in there for spice. Add two people for the sole purpose of trying to complicate things, and it just feels forced. I have never felt that Laia and Keenan have real chemistry. While I sympathize and like Helene, I can’t see her character’s personality in a romantic situation with Elias. The secondary relationships aren’t interesting or complex, and therein lies my annoyance with trying to maintain plausibility in a love triangle/rhombus.

But this is a terrific sequel, when all is said and done. I will read future installments and wait for them with bated breath!

My Grade: B

& Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Science Fiction/Fantasy. Publisher: Razorbill February 2016

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Science Fiction/Fantasy. Publisher: Razorbill February 2016

The Book Itself: I’m a little unclear what the background image is supposed to be, but the title is certainly dramatic and cool-looking. I don’t know if this cover would make me leap for this book on the shelf, but the font works well.

My Review: Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.
 
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
 
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
 
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
 
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

I shied away from this book at first because it sounded like a lot of books already out there – controlling society, high born vs. low born, society based on Greek/Roman traditions, family member endangered, young woman thrust into a situation she isn’t ready for, but triumphs regardless, etc. It’s the Hunger Games/Divergent/Countless other dystopian and fantasy series come before. I know the plot pattern. I even like the plot pattern. But some books do it better than others, and sometimes you just need to read something different.

And then the praise for this book started gathering speed. And the fans started to profess their lurve for it all over the place. So I caved and started reading.

And I’m pretty glad I did. It’s not that it’s without pitfalls – there’s a love rhombus/square for crying out loud – but overall the book has solid primary as well as secondary characters and very well-written conflict and action scenes.

Let’s get the romance thing out of the way: Laia and Elias have secondary love interests besides each other. For Laia, it’s a fellow spy named Keenan – a jerk who is “just trying to protect her” (yes, I rolled my eyes too). For Elias, it’s his best friend/battlemate Helene. This relationship is far more compelling. They’re friends, they’re pitted against each other, and their relationship is put to the hardest test of all in some of the final chapters in the book – a battle that truly affected me as a reader.

But not only do we have to set up the relationship between Laia and Elias (which ends up being that boring and ridiculous “insta-love” so overused in YA books), now we have to see the set-up of relationships between Laia and Keenan. And Elias and Helene. And even how Laia and Helene and Elias and Kennan interact. Ugh. I think the love rhombus (which is so much more interesting than a love square, don’t you think?) detracts from the main story. Although I’m torn about that, because Helene is pretty kickass and I like the conflict between her and Elias. Maybe I’m just a Keenan-hater. Sorry I’m not sorry.

And now for the world: this is a brutal book. There is no holding back. If you’ve read other reviews of this story, you know it features rape…rather prominently. Laia is constantly described as beautiful/attractive/a special snowflake in terms of looks. As a pretty slave she attracts attention. Of the bad intentions kind. I agree with both sides of the coin here: it is very in-your-face. It’s mentioned quite often for the amount of screen time Laia has. And it doesn’t help make Laia a strong feminist character, always associated with rape, physical beauty, and helplessness. But it makes sense in terms of the society: a caste system where slaves, both male and female, are property, to do with what soldiers will. Rape happened in ancient Rome and Greece. So it’s happening here.

And the brutality doesn’t end there. There is a lot of blood and guts in this story. A lot of betrayal, a lot of evil in the well-constructed villain that is the Commandant (and also Elias’ mother – MAMA ISSUES!) It’s a lot of brutality for YA, but the writing style and character development place this book pretty squarely in that genre.

I thought the action scenes were really well done, but unbalanced in terms of narration. We would go from a tense scene mid-battle for Elias amidst the Trials…and then cut away to Laia, talking to the cook in the kitchen. I would at times find Elias’ story and arc so much more compelling than Laia’s, that I wished the book were more about him. I think he’s a better constructed character overall, and he really got the bulk of the story.

Overall, I liked the story, I liked the characters. I wasn’t sold on the romance, and Laia still kind of annoys me. But I’ll pick up the next installment to see where it goes from here.

My Review: B