A Torch Against the Night: Sabaa Tahir

Having recently finished An Ember In The Ashes, I managed to get my hands on the sequel shortly thereafter. Actually, it was a Christmas present. Whee. The story follows Elias and Laia on the run from the Empire, and trying to break Darin out of Kauf Prison. One thing that I’m pretty amused by is that during my reread of the first novel, I took a moment to look at the map at the very front of the book. Kauf Prison, I noticed, was located next to a massive black space deemed “The Forest of Dusk.” So I figured that ATATN would feature the location extensively, and I was right– The Forest of Dusk becomes a main player in the book, and I say player because it’s not just a forest: it’s a sentient being on its own.

So the story features three distinctive viewpoints: Laia and Elias, as it was in the first novel, but now also Helene, which I was really happy about. I’m going to say right away that Helene’s story was the one that interested me the most. I did like Laia and Elias’s adventures, sure, but far less than everything that was happening to Helene Aquilla, the unfortunate victim of tragic circumstances.

Helene is a punching bag for this series. While Laia and Elias are running around the regions outside the empire, hellbent on reaching Kauf, Helene is cleaning their mess up back in Serra. The first thing she is subjected to is intensive torture at the hands of the enigmatic Northman, the youngest interrogator and Black Guard that Helene has ever met. She is drowned repeatedly, beaten half to death, and questioned about everything from Elias to Laia and the escape that happened in between. Marcus Farrar, newly crowned emperor, has his sights set on her too. Remember in the first book how he was literally always leering at her or threatening rape? Luckily, she isn’t assaulted by the guy… and there’s a reason for that, and that reason might be the ghost of Zak Farrar, which is a whole ‘nother enchilada to dissect. It has to do with the Forest of Dusk, a final resting place for lost souls, but we’ll get to that later.

Helene’s new title as the Blood Shrike comes with its own problems: men that continue to underestimate her; her morals and values constantly being tested; having to work in close quarters with that waste of space, Marcus Farrar, who at one point bites her lip and licks off the blood (bleh); and having her every move reported back to Keris Venturius, the Commandment, thanks to her crony the Northman tagging along and keeping a careful eye on Aquilla. At least Helene is aware that Harper– the aforementioned spy– is a spy. Still, he bears witness to all of her humiliation and the worst period of her life: the unraveling, as the Augurs call it. “You will be a torch against the night, Aquilla,” they say, or something along those terms (and also manage to title-drop. It’s always the Augurs that title-drop.) They explain that before she becomes this “torch against the night,” she will be broken down and her strings “unraveled” and then built back up to be an instrument of the empire. It sounds like a horrible life to me.

There’s something going on between the Northman and Aquilla, the introduction of a romance that I’m actually really interested in. I think that romances that start off with torture and humiliation are always really curious, not that I’ve had the chance to read up on a lot of romances that start like this. I’m rambling. My point is, they started off on “the wrong foot,” to put it in so many words. I was like, “no, Sabaa Tahir wouldn’t do this. No way. This is like an abusive relationship, or at least one built on abuse,” but that’s what makes it really interesting. Harper, Avitas Harper, is this really cold and efficient soldier. As he spends more time with  Helene, he seems to not be growing fond of her, exactly, but respectful of her. We should remember, though, that by the end of the book he’s betrayed the Commandment and so I’m pretty sure that the sequel to ATATN will feature Harper’s mangled corpse. I’m really hoping that this isn’t so– I love Harper. He’s a bizarre character that introduces a lot of tension in Helene’s life. Also, I think that she’s hanging on the edge of a cliff right now, and another death might push her straight off.

Speaking of dead people, guess who died. If you guessed Izzi, you’d be right! Yes, she is stabbed through the chest by a legionnaire while trying to protect Afya al-Nur’s younger brother from being stabbed through the chest by a legionnaire. It’s fantastic. She spouts out a geyser of blood, and her last words to Laia are “I’m afraid…” and then boom. She’s gone. It’s terrible. I got so mad. Poor Izzi, who had to suffer from childhood until now under the Commandment’s wrath– perhaps one of the only slaves to ever live so long under the Commandment. And then there was the whole thing about FINALLY ESCAPING and MAYBE MAKING A LIFE FOR HERSELF. But no. She died.

There were three things that I really didn’t like about this book: Izzi’s death, I feel, was not expanded upon. I mean, the characters suffered for a little bit but it seemed like she’d been entirely forgotten by the end. Helene’s emotional state during the aftermath of the torture was nonexistent, as was her vitriol towards the Northman. She’s a bit too diplomatic. I feel like any sane person, even if they knew they were going to be tortured and had been trained to resist torture, would still resent and be afraid of their torturer post-torture. Aquilla barely acknowledges Harper, and there’s a moment where she cringes back as he pulls his hand out of his pocket because she suddenly thinks he might be pulling out the brass beaters that he used to batter her, but that’s the full extent of her terror. Helene may be the Blood Shrike, but she’s still an eighteen (?) year old girl.

Lastly, I really disliked Laia in this book. I’m not sure what happened, but it seemed like almost every one of her decisions were terrible ones. She spends the first half of the book mooning over Keenan and Elias, and there was way too much drifting between two love interests. I’m sure that it was essential to the story, especially considering later events, but it was really annoying. I didn’t want to read about love triangles. Honestly, it’s 2016, we should stop relying on love triangles as a plot for YA novels. But still, Laia sat there trying to figure out her feelings in regards to Keenan and Elias, all while the world burned around her. I would have liked to see more inner monologue regarding their plans, the scholar massacre, the current state of the world– after all, she’s being hunted down by every Mask, legionnaire, aux and soldier that the Empire has to spare. She was a lot more likable towards the end, when she was actually trying to figure out how to break into Kauf and helped destroy the prison, but up until that point I was tired of reading about Keenan’s dark red hair and how Laia could fix his emotional constipation, or the smell of rain and cleanness on Elias and how he’s all angles and his silver eyes are so beautiful. You know? I wanted to get on with the story. 
In retrospect, I think that Laia and Helene are two sides of the “strong, female character” coin. Helene is the invulnerable, powerful, but underestimated warrior woman. Laia is the loving and nurturing, but fierce and prideful–still more feminine– wallflower turned rebel leader. But I’m not sure that it worked for me.

Okay, enough criticism. I really did like this book, it was emotionally draining to read. Especially Aquilla’s parts. She just suffers tragedy after tragedy, humiliation after humiliation at the hands of Marcus and Keris and her own men, but still– she never falters. She fights back against misogyny and disrespect, she fights against odds that are clearly turned against her, and she fails. By the end of the book, she’s failed to save the people she cares most about in the world, and we see that she has been broken completely, but built back up to become the Blood Shrike, as the Augurs desired. The Empire is her mother, father, sister, brother, lover, child, etc, as she states by the end of the book. I’m not sure what this means for Helene, but I really love her and hope that she gets the ending she deserves. I’m banking on Helene becoming the Empress; Dex, Faris, or the Avitas Harper dying (although oh my god I hope it’s not the latter); Tas, the scholar child, being killed; Elias and Laia living out the rest of their lives as magical deities (as Elias is now the Soul Person that guards the Forest of Dusk, and Laia is some kind of creature that the efrit and the Nightbringer have both addressed.) and Marcus and Keris’s lives being ended in a very satisfying manner. I feel like the Nightbringer may be imprisoned or destroyed, or he and Laia will come to an understanding or something. I dunno.

I’m looking forward to the sequel to A Torch Against the Night, hopefully one that isn’t so depressing. Because this book is really depressing, but it’s also really good. Helene. Aquilla. Please, Sabaa Tahir, she deserves a happy ending with Harper. Laia and Elias, I feel like, are dead for sure– well, maybe not dead, but they’ll be freed of their mortal bonds and become godlike creatures as I mentioned before. I guess we’ll just have to find out when the next book comes around.

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