Hello, hello, you wonderful wanters of words (too much?). Nikkie here with the After Word, which is the freshly decided name for all book reviewing posts.
I’m sure you’re wondering “But Super Hubs has been calling his posts about the Wheel of Time ‘A Fantasy Scrub vs. the Wheel of Time,’ and THOSE are review-y posts . . .” You’re right about that. And they will continue to be called that because he thought of that first, and it more properly explains the feeling behind those posts (which was that he, as someone who isn’t super familiar with fantasy beyond A Song of Ice and Fire, wanted to get into it, and the Wheel of Time is a landmark/iconic series). But I wanted to officialize any future review posts with a uniform title, so this is what we picked.
Also, as this will be the first time I’m reviewing a book in the traditional sense after the grand re-branding (most of my posts have been talking about Game of Thrones or books I’m already very familiar with), I felt it was time to cement that part of my blog contributions. Thus, I give you the After Word (see what we did there?).
As the rest of the blog title will suggest, the inaugural book of the After Word is A Torch Against the Night, the sequel to Sabaa Tahir’s best-selling YA fantasy debut, An Ember in the Ashes. Torch, which came out August 30, was highly anticipated following the great reception that Ember received last year. With the series being touted as The Hunger Games meets Game of Thrones meets the magic of Harry Potter, Tahir was basically ensuring an empire (and not the Martial kind) when she conceived of it (it’s now being bumped up to a tetralogy, by the way; WOOT WOOT).
This series had initially had me at the HP/GoT comparison, but nterestingly enough, I felt lackluster about it when I read an excerpt of Ember pre-publication. I actually came across two separate excerpts—one in Cosmopolitan and, later, a longer one somewhere online—but it’s the second time that more sticks out to me. I thought to myself “Eh . . . This is okay, I guess, but I’m not grabbed.” However, I always give debut books the benefit of the doubt because not even Stephen King got it entirely right the first time, and not every book is 100 percent perfect upon publishing (such alliteration!). So I ended up buying the book to see if it could keep me entertained.
Boy did it!
While the first few chapters still had the iffy quality I noticed when I first sampled the book, I found myself devouring the story as fast as I could. That Hunger Games meets Game of Thrones comparison was REAL, you guys. SO. REAL.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In case you aren’t at all familiar with Ember, let me try to speed-run the following synopsis:
It takes place 500 years after the Martial clans banded together to take over, turning the once-worldly Scholar society into a poverty-ridden, illiterate lower class that cowers under the rule of the Martial Emperor.
The two main/POV characters are Laia and Elias. Laia is a Scholar looking to rescue her brother, Darin, after he was kidnapped by a Mask (Martial soldier) for supposedly being a part of the Resistance. (Fun fact: Their parents used to lead the Resistance until they and their first child were murdered.) Elias is a Mask-in-training at Blackcliff Academy, which is run by the Commandant, his horrible, wretched, sadistic mother.
Laia goes to the Resistance for help rescuing Darin, not knowing there is an internal power struggle going on that her presence brings to a head. To repay the Resistance’s help, she is sent to Blackcliff to spy on the Commandant. One redheaded Resistance member, Keenan, is her seemingly unwilling contact during her month or so on the inside.
Elias has been planning to desert his Mask life—even though that’s punishable-by-death treason—because he just doesn’t believe in the world he’s been trained to enforce. However, he is chosen to participate in the Trials that will determine the next Martial Emperor, and one of the Augurs (mysterious magic prophecy people) involved in this process tells him that participation means he will get what he originally wanted: life away from all of this. The other three aspirants are his best friend, Helene; Marcus, the most evil student at Blackcliff; and Zach, Marcus’s brother. Whoever wins the Trial is Emperor, and the runner-up becomes the Blood Shrike, the Emperor’s righthand person.
Love shapes ensue. Keenan and Laia. Helene and Elias (but on her end only). Laia and Elias (which starts on his end but doesn’t stay there). Drama ensues. At one point, the Commandant carves a K into Laia’s chest (the former’s name is Kira). There is also magic in the form of shadow creatures tormenting Laia and the existence of djinn and efrits and things of that nature; their presence brings to light a dark aspect of the Scholars which directly led to their defeat.
Because I’m talking about the sequel, I unfortunately have to spoil the end of Ember. So if you think you might want to read it and don’t want any more information: GET OUT OF THIS POST!
Are they gone? Good.
The book ends with Marcus winning the Trials and Helene being selected as Blood Shrike. Elias is sentenced to death, but Laia manages to save his life; in return, he vows to help her retrieve her brother from Kauf, the Guantanamo of this world.
This bring us to A Torch Against the Night, which begins with Laia and Elias trying to get out of Serra, the town(?) where Laia was originally from, which sits under the shadow of Blackcliff. They manage to make it out, but at what cost?
Without giving too much away, Torch focuses heavily on Laia’s mission to save Darin and discover herself in the process. She becomes even more torn between Keenan and Elias, as the two men further personify very different ideals. Interestingly, though, both ideals have a foundation in trust, as in “Who can she trust, and why?” The answer is continually surprising.
Elias, meanwhile, is determined to rectify his past by helping Laia—so determined that he more or less forbids himself from letting his emotions (read: feelings for her) get in the way. His deep aversion toward being the cause of any more death led to some real soul-searching in Ember, and that is continued here. In fact, the impact that death and destruction plays in his life takes a remarkable turn.
Helene becomes a POV character in this book, which is pretty cool (girl power!). As Blood Shrike to the person she most reviles, Helene has the torturous responsibility of finding and executing her best friend (whom she is also in love with). However, loyalty to the Empire has been drilled into her long before she entered Blackcliff as a child, so when the line between right and wrong gets blurred (potentially just outright disappearing), will she be able to shirk her duty? What happens when the potential casualties along that line are members of her own family? And what is going on with Harper, a spy in league with the Commandant—or is he?
I won’t give away much more than that in this post because you really ought to read this book. General plot arcs involve politics (was Marcus’s reign doomed before it began?), more magic (one word: Nightbringer), and family. As with Ember, there is death and torture and people not being who (or what) they initially seemed.
I thought this was a very successful sequel. Tahir managed to surprise me at several turns in the book, which is always a plus for me. So hooray for not succumbing to the fatal Sophomore Slump (looking at you, Chamber of Secrets). There were still weaknesses, as there often are, but nothing too distracting.
Laia’s progression throughout the book is interesting. It isn’t tied up in a perfect bow at the end, as there are two books left to round her out, but the foundation set up here is great. Some people may not like how she returns to “helpless Laia” form, since Ember ends with her taking charge to save Elias, but I think it works perfectly. Taking charge is a new tool in her belt; she really doesn’t know how to use it. Watching her struggle under the emotional weight and pain wrought by the hard choices she makes on the way to Kauf felt very natural to me. Laia is not perfect, and it really shows. No Mary Janes up in this piece.
Both Laia and Elias become more heavily connected to the magic aspect of the story, which allows Tahir to further flesh out the backstory of this universe. I can’t really divulge more on that without getting into MAJOR spoiler territory, but just know: it’s kinda intense! There’s a bit of deus ex machina to certain aspects of their magic involvement, but I’ll allow it; similar situations occur in Ember with Helene, so this feels like an extension of that. In fact, as I think about it, I like it more because it plays into the anti-Chosen One vibe of this series. There are too many things going on in this world—each being influenced by or hinging on a particular character—for everything to depend on one person. So, in a way, all the main characters are Chosen. The world needs them all to get where it’s going.
I found the love shape aspect tiring. But that’s not an outright misstep on Tahir’s part. I just don’t like love shapes. In most cases, the shape becomes this drawn-out thing that intertwines itself in the full plot arc instead of occupying just a tiny section of it. As a result, readers become #TeamFirstGuyorGirl vs. #TeamSecondGuyorGirl, and once the finale comes along, someone ends up the loser. I’m fairly positive that I’m in this exact boat with Sarah Raasch’s Snow Like Ashes trilogy (which the final installment can now confirm since it was published yesterday), so trust me when I say that it’s the worst feeling!
That aside, my choice for Laia’s love interest becomes super justified in Torch. The guy I did not want her to end up with is more or less permanently taken out of the equation! He’s still alive and an integral part of the story, but unless Tahir makes a literally unfathomable move, the romantic entanglement aspect is CAPUT. Hallelujah! Saying that prevents me from venting about this guy (because that would NOT be spoiler-free), but if you’re really curious, Super Hubs might be able to help you out. He read the books too and shares my opinion of the love shape. A second Torch post from his perspective may be on the way, and I know for a fact he won’t be able to censor the hate he feels toward this particular pairing. So if he writes that up, you will be able to discern who we’re rooting for and who we were hoping would die in a fire (he didn’t . . . but he’s still gone!).
What really sticks out to me in retrospect is the way family plays a huge part in this book’s narrative. In Ember, the loss of family was certainly Laia’s motivation, and it is here as well. But she begins to realize the importance of building a new family as well. This realization directly correlates with the devastating events that lead to Laia shying away from leadership, and it’s a necessary step in her evolution.
The same can be said of Elias and Helene. Elias had a very strong sense of family before he was chosen to attend Blackcliff because he was actually raised in the Tribal lands. Once he is marked for Maskhood and put within spitting distance of the woman who abandoned him at birth (or so the story goes), he becomes very guarded. While he made friends, the only person to really scale those walls is Helene—and he couldn’t even trust her with the knowledge that he wanted to desert. His journey in Torch leads him to revisit the warmth of his past and make a choice between staying behind his walls or climbing them himself.
Helene, on the other hand, might have to start building her own. Her life, and the lives of her family, depends on her being able to see Elias not as her best friend and the man she loves but as a treasonous criminal who must be brought to justice. You see, Marcus’s systematic torturing of her doesn’t stop once she’s under his control, and her every move has disastrous potential because he knows Elias is her weakness.
Like I mentioned before, Helene’s family becomes potential collateral in this madness. At the center of this are her two younger sisters. She is extremely protective of the youngest one, while the older one is not very fond of Hel. Their relationship has been strained since the death of a friend’s fiance during Trials—more honestly, it’s been that way since Helene was sent to Blackcliff. Even though that relationship is a little toxic, it becomes an emotional minefield when Marcus gets his filth all over it. I was truly shocked by the way this comes together by novel’s end, and I can’t wait to see where it goes in the final installments.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I have so many questions that I’m hoping the next two books will answer! For example: What is the real story behind Cook, a former servant of the Commandant who has ties to the Resistance and a DEEP hatred of Laia’s mother? She pops up in a surprising way in Torch, and I’m desperate for more on her. Especially the part about Laia’s mom being the worst.
Really, I just want to see how the political and magical elements play out. They are much more intertwined than I may have previously let on, and I’m curious to see if one or the other ends up taking precedence. I’d be fine with either one, to be honest, as long as the conclusion of the lesser element feeds into the focusing narrative.
As far as writing goes, Tahir is sufficiently talented. I think her strength lies more in building the world and developing the story as opposed to actual word quality. So to anyone initially underwhelmed by the writing (as I was in the beginning), trust me when I say you should keep trekking; I’ve read books with writing that was way worse, and this story is worth it. Besides, there was a definite improvement in Torch, if you ask me (and obviously you did since you’re reading this post). So the old adage rings true: practice makes perfect (or thereabouts).
That’s it for me this month, my friends. Super Hubs will head your way this week with a new Undertale post in honor of his birthday on Saturday. After that, we’ve got a BIG surprise project that will hopefully come together for the Oct 4 date I’ve set for it. It’s been in the works for a while, and I really hope we can get it done! I’ll be super happy and excited if so.
Even if we don’t complete that, we won’t leave you hanging. One of our first October posts will be a comparison of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and the film adaptation that comes out next week. Spoiler alert: Neither of us were impressed by the book, so perhaps this will be one of those rare cases where the movie is better (to us, anyway). Also, I’ve been P-A-I-N-F-U-L-L-Y making my way through Gilmore Girls, and I plan to post about that shit-show (which works either way you want to interpret it) once I reach the finish line. I’ll be pointing out A LOT of issues and exploring how having to wait a week between episodes is probably what kept this show on the air for so long . . . So look forward to that! Unless you like the show, in which case . . . keep off the Web that day haha!
May your torches burn bright (as long as they’re a reasonable distance from your TBR pile),