Things in the Martial Empire are bad—Game of Thrones bad. Every horror of An Ember in the Ashes is magnified in A Torch Against the Night by the chaos of a bloody ancient-Roman-style transfer of power.
In An Ember in the Ashes, Tahir’s first book, we were introduced to Elias and his possible love interest, Helen, students at the notorious Blackcliff Academy. They are training to be “masks,” elite and ruthless officers in the oppressive Martial Empire. The “masks” wear silver masks made of a magical metal that binds to their skin over time and makes them even more cruel. It looks like Elias might become the next emperor and Helen his blood shrike, a vicious enforcer sworn to the emperor.
Laia is member of the enslaved class of scholars who becomes a spy for the rebellion in hopes of freeing her imprisoned brother. She meets Elias while spying at Blackcliff. Elias resists his mask and casts it aside, meaning to run away from the empire and escape before becoming the servant of Markus, another sadist emperor. Laia finds the rebels are using her and have no intention of helping her brother. Together Elias and Laia make a daring escape and embark on a quest to free Laia’s brother from the most notorious prison in the empire.
In A Torch Against the Night, the reader is dropped into the moment Elias and Laia are running from platoons of masks through the catacombs of the city. The pace of the novel is breathless from the start, and the tension never lets up for a moment.
Ember celebrated hope in the face of violence and despair. The two protagonists ultimately cast off the literal and figurative masks in favor living out their true identities. In A Torch Against the Night, the protagonists must face the consequences of those choices, and the price is high. Tahir never lets her characters off the hook. Elias and Laia are pursued every moment by human and supernatural furies, though, as we find out, for reasons other than the ones we believe at first.
In Ember, Ifrits and jinns hover at the edges of the story; here they come into full play. We discover that trouble and betrayal in the supernatural world are allowing for chaos in the human one. That conceit is echoed in the internal journeys of each of the three protagonists given voices in this story. Each one experiences a unique manifestation of their spiritual state that informs the action.
Elias has murdered many people, both strangers and friends. In a dreamlike wood at the edge of his own death he meets his supernatural counterpart. He returns to this quiet, meditative landscape repeatedly throughout the story. Here, he and his counterpart must each confront the ghosts of those they have betrayed and murdered. Repentance and forgiveness are complicated and fraught with the twists and turns of tortuous regret and self-deception.
Laia trades true love for a relationship of convenience. She and her lover each have an agenda that they hide from the other. She believes lies he tells her about herself, that because she makes mistakes she should stop practicing her gifts and deny them altogether as unreliable. The fate of more than her brother rests on whether or not she will believe that she should not take risks if there is a chance of failure.
Helene also has a voice in this novel. She is caught in one impossibly cruel situation after another. The augurs mediate between the supernatural powers and the natural ones. They glide through the shadows and manipulate the Martial Empire from behind the scenes. The augurs give Helene a little knowledge of her future, just enough that she spends most of her time grieving for a disaster that never happens. When a different catastrophe comes upon her, she is caught off guard. Her journey is filled with the irony of a Greek tragedy. In hindsight it is perfectly clear that what the augurs told her was true.
The environment of chaos gives perfect cover for several vicious and sadistic villains. Prisons both real and supernatural warp the beings held inside them. But Tahir does not allow her characters to put off self-reckoning until the action stops. Each choice, in the moment, is an expression of beliefs and assumptions that turn into actions without pause. Each action has consequences, often unintended.
Elias and Laia have a brief moment of respite at the close of the story. True to form, it is not straightforward. It carries its own undercurrent of complex and unresolved consequences. They pause in that strange quiet wood filled with ghosts at the edge of death.
The publication date for the next book in the series has not yet been announced. Until then, the rich characters Sabaa Tahir has created will linger in my mind, like a meditation against the echo of an unresolved chord.