A Torch Against The Night | Thoughts
“Your emotions make you human. Even the unpleasant ones have a purpose. Don't lock them away. If you ignore them, they just get louder and angrier.”
Well, okay, if you insist. As sad as it makes me to give this anything but 5 stars, I don't want my dissent to grow louder and angrier, and I think I know what happened with Torch. I had my expectations set so unbelievably high...after loving An Ember in the Ashes with such a fierce passion, how could the sequel let me down? I'm conflicted over the rating to give this, so we'll start at 3 (it won't go lower) and perhaps after I've held discussion with myself throughout this review, things will change.
*shrugs* We shall see!
There are some key aspects that led to this disappointment, though I will say that I still very much enjoyed Torch. I just found myself dissatisfied throughout the first half, and then throughout the second...and when I turned the last page I thought, "That's it?"
First, the writing was nowhere near on the same level as in Ember. I read that Sabaa Tahir had originally intended this to be the first novel, and I'm not sure if that's the reason, but the first half of Torch read like a completely different (and less skilled) writer. I was puzzled by the awkwardness in everything from the character interactions to the sentence structure in the first half, so if this is the product of her earlier writing, it makes sense. By halfway through I began to recognize the same well-developed writing and storytelling I've come to expect from Tahir.
This will be a long one, as I want to touch on everything. Well, almost everything. But I'll keep it as organized as possible.
There is a whole lot more of this brutal world in Torch. Not being confined to just Blackcliff and Serra, we get a deeper look at the Tribespeople of Elias' early years, the way of life for Scholars outside Serra, and a better lay of the land of the Empire. Glimpses of Antium and the Free Lands of Marinn are brief due to the characters' constant state of motion, but I anticipate more to come. The limited setting was one of the main issues I could see in the first book (though I obviously didn't care), so I'm glad Tahir took us away from Serra and showed us more.
In Ember, magical elements were kept to a minimal and kept in two separate boxes, one with our completely normal, human characters and one with fey creatures such as efrits and ghuls. In Torch, these elements step up and are now an integral part of the plot.
Now, I am not a fan of starting a story out with these two boxes and then suddenly having the two cross over, with our normal humans now conveniently magical, but I do love me some mysticism in my stories. The transition to this discovery, however, is one of the awkward aspects that seemed just slightly disjointed from the story. *Spoiler!* The explanation that magical abilities in our character's blood were awakened by their first physical contact with the fey is one I'm willing to embrace and move past my initial chafing, and the mystery surrounding Laia's gift has me pondering what she very well could be. My guess is part Jinn (just saying).
Thus far, the central plot in Ember and Torch has been the rising tensions between the Scholar people and the Martials, with the mysterious Augurs and The Nightbringer hovering just outside the perimeters of our vision, reminding us that there are deeper games afoot. Torch gives us a more complete look at those games, and I love that the conflicts of the Empire pale in comparison to what is really going on. Puts me in mind of A Song of Ice and Fire, where I just feel like screaming at everyone south of the Wall "YOU HAVE NO F*CKING IDEA WHAT IS COMING!"
Helene is getting her own category, because she is amazing. Her perspective keeps us in enemy territory, so we're still able to have a little insight as to what's brewing on the Martial side. Her emotions and loyalties are in such tumult, her thoughts conflicted at every turn, and she is so heartrendingly real because of them. She is, however, not safe from my cynicism, and I have some key issues with her behavior especially towards the end. I know the Commandant is an evil bitch. I know she terrifies the students. But damnit Helene, you are NOT a student anymore! You're the Blood Shrike, and while at one turn you are disciplining your men and reminding them why YOU, not any one of THEM, were chosen by the Augurs as one of only 4 candidates for future Emperor in the Trials, at the next you are cowering and powerless when the Commandant baits you. I'll give you a pass with Elias—you don't know what to do with that situation. But what happened to my warrior girl, beating all the men and taking NO shit?
Rather, lack thereof. I love that there's a lot more going on here than just which characters will end up together, but the attraction between characters is still a factor. We've got Laia's conflicting feelings for Keenan and Elias, Helene's torturous love for Elias (though, hello Avitas Harper...), and Elias' altogether annoying take on why he doesn't deserve anything or anyone.
I said in my review of Ember that when forced to choose, I choose Elias and Laia. But their romance is yet another awkward element, and while theoretically I love them together, I don't think there's palpable chemistry. At one point, Laia is filling him in on her involvement with the rebellion, and she just decides that Keenan kissing her in a tool shed is key information. What? Since when is a kiss from a boy relevant to ANYTHING that is going on regarding the massacre of your people, or the Martial fugitive who's helping you break your brother out of prison? It was thrown in to cause a jealous atmosphere, where Elias needed to know about his competition with Keenan. *eyeroll*
Combine that with the typical "I'll only hurt you" routine, and we don't see much action—which is probably for the best. *Spoiler!* The most believable and well-constructed intimate scene was between Laia and Keenan, and I knew something was off with that guy from book one! Maybe I didn't see the actual truth coming...but I knew he was wrong for Laia the moment he tried to keep her tucked safely away while he "handled" everything.
There are a few main villains: Marcus (The Emperor), Keris (The Commandant), The Warden, and The Nightbringer.
There is such great opportunity to delve into Marcus' and Keris' evil, and I thought the glimpse of their convoluted depths in Ember meant we were going to get a deeper exploration here, but no. There are glimmers in Helene's interactions with Marcus, but mostly their evil is passed off as mere insanity. I'm not pleased with letting insanity explain their actions, and I do so hate The Commandant. The "Bitch of Blackcliff" is right.
The Warden is a sadistic scientist of sorts, only briefly touched upon during the latter half. The half-mad, half-genius working of his mind and his study into the limits of psychological and physical pain make him pretty terrifying on his own, never mind being teamed with our other villains.
And lastly, the conductor of the grand orchestra of death and terror, to whom all of the above are merely instruments. The Nightbringer. He and The Commandant are the two I'd like to see focused on going forward. He is the only one I will concede not knowing more about only deepens the suspense surrounding his character, and the few revelations we're given in Torch are plenty for me to stew over in the next year. Do something wonderful and frightening with him, Tahir. I trust you.
Last few comments I have are serious spoilers, so be warned.
Izzy—I get that it's a rough world and things do not always end happily. But her death felt like an easy-out, like she was an expendable character we needed to be rid of. So why not just let her stay with the Tribespeople? She'd already had a terrible life as a slave, and she never let that kill her kind spirit. I am completely on-board with key character deaths, when they make sense and not killing them is the stretch. But Izzy could have easily been left with Gibran and be just as neatly detached from the story, so I deem her death unnecessary.
Cook—Oooo I am so very curious about the nature of Cook. I am starting to develop a theory that she is also a singer, and maybe healing is not all that singing can do. Perhaps that is the real reason they destroyed her throat (by, if you remember, pouring hot coals down her throat).
Darin—Ah, the Artist. I was so eager to get to know Darin in this book. The savior of the Scholar rebellion; the one who will bring weapons' knowledge back to his people (speaking of this, where the F is Spiro?). The one who is strong enough in mind and spirit to survive months under the twisted experiments of Kauf's warden. Alas, he spends the entire first month of his reunion with Laia in a coma, their only words spoken to each other in the last sentence of the book. *sigh* Guess I'm waiting for the next book to get to know you, Darin.
By the last third I was indeed flying through pages—I couldn't put it down. All the action, magic, revelations, and betrayals come to light and they are, arguably, magnificent. Unfortunately, it doesn't change that I am still dissatisfied with the overall feel of stalling that Torch has. Stalling the relationships, stalling the plot by dragging out the months of Darin's rescue and Elias' fate...The most character development we saw was with Helene, and I am not happy with where we left her.
So, after careful dissection of my feelings on all that happened in Torch, I feel comfortable with a 3.5. There are two more books to come, though, and I trust Tahir will astound us now we've gotten deeper into the true threats against not just the Scholars, but the Empire itself.