Saturday, July 30, 2016

a torch against the night: stardust arc reviews

A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes #2)
Sabaa Tahir



A Torch Against the Night takes readers into the heart of the Empire as Laia and Elias fight their way north to liberate Laia’s brother from the horrors of Kauf Prison. Hunted by Empire soldiers, manipulated by the Commandant, and haunted by their pasts, Laia and Elias must outfox their enemies and confront the treacherousness of their own hearts.

In the city of Serra, Helene Aquilla finds herself bound to the will of the Empire’s twisted new leader, Marcus. When her loyalty is questioned, Helene finds herself taking on a mission to prove herself—a mission that might destroy her, instead.


I received this arc from Penguin just a couple days ago, so thank you SO MUCH to them for letting me read this one a little early! I got so so excited when it came in the mail :) 

Y'ALL. I HAD TO WAIT A BIT AFTER I FINISHED THIS ONE BECAUSE I COULDN'T FORM WORDS. It was so, so incredibly good. I think I just need to state how utterly amazing it was, before I dive into all of the specifics. Just from the standpoint of a casual reader, this book was flawless. A perfect follow up to the first book, with tons of excitement but also a lot of development as well. This book, especially the second half, reads at a breakneck pace, because you simply HAVE to know what happens next. Also, my favorite character from book one, Helene, gets a POV, so you simply must read it, if only to see what is going through her head. 

It bears repeating at An Ember In the Ashes was one of my absolute favorite books of 2015. I thought it was different and well executed, exciting and edge-of-your-seat engrossing, and I was, if I'm being honest, a little worried about how the follow up would go over. When your debut is that amazing, how do you even begin writing a second novel, with all the pressure on? But I needn't have worried, because OBVIOUSLY Sabaa Tahir has us all wrapped up in her very capable hands. I think this is a perfect example of someone taking the success of their first book and building positively on it, making the established world and characters deeper while introducing a few new faces/sources of conflict, but without straying too far from the formula of success that the first novel follows. A Torch Against the Night takes everything that was awesome about An Ember in the Ashes and makes it better, from the diverse personalities of our characters to the fierce brutality of our world. 

For those of you that need a refresher, here it is: at the end of An Ember in the Ashes, our main characters, Elias and Laia, were running for their lives. Elias is a soldier, trained from the time he was six years old to be one thing: a brutal killing machine, loyal only to the horrific Martial Empire that has conquered most of the continent. Except Elias isn't loyal and he isn't brutal. He is empathetic and kind and good to the core, and yearns for freedom. Laia is a member of a race, the Scholars, which has been beaten down, enslaved, and nearly exterminated by the Martial Empire, and after the death of her grandparents and capture of her brother, she becomes a slave. The two meet and go through a harrowing time, spying and competing, when all hell breaks loose, Elias is branded a traitor to the Empire and Laia swoops in at the last minute to save him. A Torch Against the Night picks up about an hour after the first book ends, with Laia and Elias making a mad dash for the relative freedom that comes outside the city. 

An Ember in the Ashes was an amazing introduction to this world. We meet and go on a journey with our two main characters in alternating perspectives, and their paths don't cross that often, so we get a wider look at the setting. The worldbuilding is impeccable, which is amazing because the majority of the book takes place in one setting. But where the first book is all world building and character development, the second is concerned with deepening our understanding of the things we already know, as well as introducing the main conflict for the rest of the series. It is a great way to kind of ease us into a stranger world than the one we knew from book one, because we are surrounded by familiar faces. 

This book is driven by amazing characters, of course, which I will talk about later, but also on an incredibly rich setting. (which I feel like I've already talked about a ton but will continue to wax poetic on until I get sick of it) Gone are the confines of Blackcliff with its rules and the Commandant looming; in its place is a wider world, with different sorts of people and more dangers. Elias and Laia's escape, Marcus' coronation as emperor and Helene's appointment to the post of Blood Shrike has set off a chain reaction, and the entire continent is feeling the aftershocks of these actions. Let's just say that if you thought the first book included some brutal stuff, then you'll find that this second one has even less regard for the faint of heart. This reinforced brutality and bloodshed remind us that this world is a cruel one, and makes the stakes even higher for our characters. In addition to seeing more horrible deeds, we also get to meet the Tribal people, whom we heard so much about in book one, as well as some more magical creatures. I really enjoy the "magic" in these books, because it plays such a small role. These books aren't about wizards wielding their powers every time their shoe comes untied, the magic in these ones is far more subtle, so that sometimes you even forget about it. The ghuls, efrits, wraiths and jinns are present, but not key players in the plot. It just makes it way more interesting when magic does show up. 

I LOOVE the characters in this book so much. They developed so much, becoming stronger and more sure of themselves, over the course of this book. Take Laia, for example. By the end of this book, she is nearly unrecognizable when placed beside the girl she was at the beginning of book one. She is no longer fleeing, she is running straight towards all sorts of danger. She is sure of herself and she is determined to save her brother, no matter the cost. She has a fire and an iron will, and it is so awesome to see her tap into her deep reserves of strength, and even more awesome to see her do so through Elias' eyes. I love that she becomes touched by magic, nothing drastic, but I can't wait to see how we can explore her power more in the next book. I just admire her so much, for always striving to do the right thing, even when she becomes discouraged and angry with her situation. She never gives up hope. 

Elias is the most precious cinnamon roll in the entire world. Even though he could kill you in about five seconds flat, he is the most empathetic and careful person in the world. He has this incredible, otherworldly strength and determination about him, but at his core, all he cares about is making other people happy, not hurting other people, making sure that other people are taken care of. I loved seeing him get past his personal demons, even thought it was an enormous struggle for him, and  I also loved seeing him gain a wisdom that he didn't have in the last novel. 

Helene, our new POV girl, was everything I wanted her to be and more. I loved her in the first book, and when I heard that she was getting a POV, everything seemed right with the world. She is so interesting, and the thoughts in her head did not disappoint me. She is a girl who grew up, from the time she was six years old, surrounded by boys. She is a soldier and a member of the noble class, belonging to a family whose motto is "loyal to the end," and she has always lived by that. Loyal, to the empire, to the end. But when Elias escapes  and she becomes the personal assassin of the new empire, whom she hates, everything becomes a lot more complicated in her world. Soon, Helene has to choose between killing her best friend and the boy that she loves, and keeping her world and her family in tact. The decision is not an easy one, and to see her grappling with this choice is hard but also so well done. Helene is a girl and she is strong and fierce and will kill you, but she also has fears and doubts and sorrows, and I thought her chapters in this book were wonderfully humanizing for her. I CAN'T WAIT to see her kicking ass and taking names in the next book. (also... I ship her and Harper. Is that bad? read it and lemme know)

As for the rest of the characters, they were all amazing too. Even when I hated them (ahem, the Commandant, ahem) they were still awesome characters. I love Izzi so much (MY HEART. when you read it you'll understand), and meeting Mamie Rila, who raised Elias, was really great. I loved Tas so so MUCH, and finally seeing Darin (even imprisoned) was great.  Keenan was so interesting, I'm so glad we got to see him developed from book one. The warden sucked but he was so creepy it was almost fun to read about him. The Soul Catcher was super interesting, I really didn't know what to think of her, but then I ended up loving her. Number one most mysterious though, would have to be Cook. I mean, she has got to have an important role in the resistance as it was, but she is so mysterious, especially because she seems to care so much about Laia. I was guessing that Cook was actually Laia's mother, but I don't know how that would be possible! I just don't know and I NEED TO. I'm looking forward to finding out. 

The plot of this one was, of course, fan-freaking-tastic. It was fast paced but knew where to slow down, it was always keeping me on my toes, and it revealed the things that needed to be revealed when they needed to be revealed. It didn't hold back a ton of secrets from me as a reader, which I liked. Basically, Elias and Laia flee from the heart of the empire to the wilds of the countryside and the north, on their way to try and free Laia's brother, and his intimate knowledge of Martial steel, from Kauf prison, which is basically like the scary pit-jail from that batman movie, but in the snow and ten times scarier. They are also being hunted by Helene and Elias' mother, and they meet up with old friends and new acquaintances along the way. Of course, there is a lot more to it than this, but you'll just have to read it to find out :) 
(But, (spoiler here!!!) let me just say that I was so so sad for so much of this book? Izzi's death really took it out of me, and then Elias' slow fight with the poison aand what he did for the soul catcher and Helene's impossible decision and the betrayal of Laia by Keenan?? Our kids went through some TOUGH SHIT in this book. It was so good, but I am so sad for the burdens that they have to carry) 
Okay, no more spoilers! Anyways, I could go on and on, but let me just finish by saying that I think this book is absolutely better than the first one. It is more intense, more dramatic, and there is more at stake. I think our characters grow in a lot of positive ways, even as their situation grows more dire, and I loved the way magic and more conflict was brought into the story gradually. I definitely think you should continue on with the series if you read An Ember in the Ashes, and if you haven't read either, then what are you waiting for???


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