A Torch Against the Night begins right where An Ember in the Ashes left off.
Elias and Lia are running from Blackcliff soldiers through the catacombs. They are trying to escape the city and make their way to Kauf prison to break Lia’s brother Darrin out. After a daring escape and a fateful encounter with the Commandant they do manage to get out of the city. On their way they are intercepted by Keenan and Izzie who join them on their quest to rescue Darrin.
Meanwhile, Helene is stuck as the Blood Shrike to Marcus – a position she wanted as much as she wanted a bolt to the brain. But is Helen stuck because the Augers have said following Marcus’ orders will not only teach her things she needs to know about the empire and turn her into the perfect Blood Shrike.
Marcus has ordered her to hunt down Elias and return him to “justice” as a way to prove that he is capable. Things are on the brink of falling apart. The Gens are not too happy to have a Plebeian king and are plotting against Marcus and the Commandant is methodically going through the country and killing Scholars en masse. Any scholar who isn’t a slave that is.
The country is ready for whatever revolution Lia can cook up, if she can reach Darrin in time to learn the secrets of the Martial steel.
Elias and Lia did a lot of development in An Ember in the Ashes. Lia learned that she could be courageous and clever. Elias learned how to deal with grief and decided who he wanted to be. They grew and changed, but in A Torch Against the Night, it feels as if they’re stopped growing. Lia even seems to have regressed a little. She is less willing to take the lead and glad to sit back and let other people run the show. You kind of feel like you just covered this.
Even the Commandant feels different. Where once she was the complex, intelligent, evil and easy to hate, she’s been reduced to a lady-stache twirling villain who just seems bent on being a pain in everyone’s ass. And Helene, who you really do feel for, spends most of her time obsessing over Elias, which is pretty much what she did in the last book. It would have been nice to see her exploring her powers more and working herself into her position as Blood Shrike.
While A Torch Against the Night doesn’t introduce a host of new characters there are two that really stand out and I want to see more of. Harper and the Warden. Harper is a spy for the Commandant who Helene is forced to keep close. While he does some pretty awful things like interrogate (read: torture) Helene at Marcus’ request and is loyal to the empire, he doesn’t come across as an awful person. You don’t really know what his motives are but you can’t help but think that you’ll like him once we really get to know him. Maybe he’ll even end up a love interest for Helene.
The other interesting character introduced is the Warden. The Warden of Kauf prison. The prison where people check in and no one checks out because the Warden experiments on them constantly. He’s the behavioural science version of Josef Mengele. The Warden is completely creepy. He’s controlled, is constantly examining the tics of people around him, finds pain and suffering to be the ultimate revealer of truth, and recites disturbing violent poetry and philosophy. I want more of this guy. Having him work with or against the Commandant in the next book would be a great plot point because they’re both ambitious and sadistic, but they go about their goals in such different ways. Ultimately, you want to see him die a horrible death, but first you want to see him hit his stride.
With Lia and Elias setting out on their quest to free Darrin we get to see a little bit more of the world, but not as much as I would have liked. We briefly get to see a city of outlaws and a Traders city but we barely get a feel for these places before we’re whisked back out on a cross country journey. Each new environment doesn’t have its own particular feel. It’s very much here’s a town, here’s a town, oh look, this one has a forest. But there is always hope for the next book. Maybe we’ll actually get to experience some of the places mentioned like the country of the Mariners and the Free Lands.
A Torch Against the Night mostly suffers from middle book syndrome. The biggest, most memorable events are setting up for the next book. Which isn’t to say that this book is a paper weight because it definitely is not. For one thing, Tahir never shies away from violence when it’s necessary to the story. When prison is supposed to be horrid it feels like it is filled with human suffering. When you encounter the results of the Scholar genocide you are feel outraged. It never feels like you’re just reading the script to a snuff film, but you do feel the impact of the brutality.
Another good point is that Elias and Helene are really put through the ringer when you look at the difficult situations they find themselves in. Situations that make you feel for them and also have you rooting for them to come out on top, because the odds are stacked so high against them.
A Torch Against the Night is not as tight as An Ember in the Ashes. There is less character development, less world building, and the plot is not complex. But it is still a good read. Characters find themselves in tough situations, you still very much care for the characters and the world, and it is enjoyable. Plus, there are a couple of great plot twists and developments that make you will have you looking forward to the next book, whenever that comes out. Hopefully we will finally get some of the answers we’ve been waiting for.