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Sabaa Tahir’s fantasy series grows up in A Torch Against The Night

Photo: Libby McGuire

Sabaa Tahir’s bestselling debut novel, An Ember In The Ashes, showed the author’s potential, but too easily drew comparisons to other YA series. Both protagonists in the fantasy book were torn between two love interests, and most of the action took place at school where magically chosen youth undergo a series of kill-or-be-killed trials at the behest of powerful adults. But while the action of A Torch Against The Night picks up right where the first book in the series ended, it quickly leaves behind Blackcliff Academy and the genre clichés, developing into something fresh and exciting.

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Set in a fantasy world that mixes the politics of the Roman Empire with Arabian myth, Tahir’s series primarily follows Laia, an escaped Scholar slave hoping to save her brother and possibly her people, and Elias, a deadly warrior and traitor to the Martial Empire. While she doesn’t get equal treatment, Elias’ best friend and fellow Blackcliff graduate Helene gets added to the narrating duties in A Torch Against The Night, tasked with tracking down and killing Elias at the command of the new emperor.

Tahir’s setting is a cruel one and she’s shown a willingness to kill characters and unleash horrors on her heroes that would make George R.R. Martin proud. Tahir doesn’t let up in A Torch Against The Night, but she has become more sophisticated at penning her characters’ reactions to the violence around them, and to the compromises they must make to survive and achieve their goals. There’s still lots of brooding, but events that seem like they could derail a character for chapters, like Laia being traumatized by killing a man trying to capture Elias, get just enough treatment to show their impact without dragging on too long.

Spending less time exploring her protagonists’ emotional states lets Tahir devote more space to developing her world. As Elias and Laia travel to Kauf Prison to stage a jailbreak, Tahir fleshes out the other peoples of her world, their relationships with the Empire, and how the power dynamics are shifting based on the events of the first book. Helene was the most intriguing character in An Ember In The Ashes and her narrating chapters don’t disappoint. She provides perspective on the Empire’s internal power struggles, navigating political intrigue, duty to her family and emperor, and the constant tests of competence required of a young woman in a male-dominated world.

The fantasy aspects just creeping on the edges of An Ember In The Ashes also become more prominent here, with new magical powers and beings revealed, and more hints at the machinations of the jinn lord known as The Nightbringer that serves as the primary existential threat to Tahir’s world. Tahir has shown a remarkable talent for penning complex villains, which continues in A Torch Against The Night where a plot twist turns The Nightbringer from omnipotent big bad to a surprisingly sympathetic, if still terrifying, antagonist. Marcus—who started as a sort of Draco Malfoy stand-in to the Harry- and Hermione-like Elias and Helene—has come further in one book than J.K. Rowling’s character did in seven and Tahir hints that the character has hidden depths and secrets that promise to make him even more compelling as the series continues. Tahir manages to give those characters new weight without doing a disservice to the primary villain of An Ember In The Ashes, the commandant of Blackwatch Academy, who remains as twisted and cunning as ever. But there’s only enough room for so many bad guys and her newest one, the Warden Of Kauf, falls short. Lacking nuance or pathos, the Mengele-like character might make sense in Tahir’s genocide narrative, but doesn’t produce the same chills as the other characters.

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Another refreshing shift away from YA tropes comes from characters that stop pining for each other and actually have consensual sex. Tahir’s got a talent for romantic descriptions, but all her lines about skin set aflame and characters melting into each other were a relentless tease in An Ember In The Ashes. She seemed to be heading for a repeat in the early chapters of A Torch Against The Night, where Elias spends most of his time trying to keep Laia at arm’s distance to avoid hurting her, but Tahir acknowledges that young people finding physical comfort in each other in times of extreme stress is likely and natural. While she’s not explicit in her descriptions, she doesn’t leave room for second guessing what’s transpired.

Tahir has made some extremely dramatic plot and character decisions in both of her books, showing a willingness to change dynamics as she continues her series (there are two more novels on the way). It should be fascinating to watch both her characters and writing talent continue to mature.

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