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Today I am going to be reviewing A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir. Like I mentioned in my review for An Ember in the Ashes, I have been rereading this series in preparation for A Reaper at the Gates. While my experience rereading the first book was overwhelmingly positive, making me like the book more than I did the first time I read it, that was not the case here. Tahir still wrote a compelling, generally good book. It just didn’t capture that full sense of wonder and emotion as the first book. Everything scratched the surface when it could have gone deeper and most of my excitement or sorrow came from what the first book had set up, not what the second book had developed. I want to stress that I had a fantastic time reading this book. I flew through the whole thing in about two days and cannot wait the start the third. The book reviewer commitment I have is what is causing me to scrutinize an otherwise strong book, so closely. I will be drawing comparisons to the first book, since that’s the only real standard I have to hold this book to, so bear with me.
The plot of this book felt less sharp than I expected. Unlike the first book, this book was focused on maybe two big events that felt small in the grand scheme of things. Elias, Laia, and Helene were thinking big in the first book, which makes it more shocking that all of them began focusing less on big picture and more on the immediate. Elias and Laia were focused on escaping the Empire in the first book and now they spend the entire book trying to save one man without discussing their greater plans. Helene was focused on helping the Empire grow and now she spends the whole book grappling with her feelings for Elias.The incorporation of a revolution at Kauf Prison also made this whole thing feel muddled. You read a whole book where three characters are dead set on certain specific things and then they risk all of that to help with revolutions. It’s classically cliche for the YA genre to incorporate a revolution where it doesn’t belong.
There were relatively large time jumps between key moments of the journey to Kauf. I know it would be boring to show the entirety of a months-long journey, but I missed out on the connections and developments that happened along the way. Tahir only showed the big, exciting events, leaving out a balance of quieter ones that would have shaped the choices characters make later on. The best example of why the time jumps didn’t work is Izzi. One minute she’s terrified to even speak to the tribal people, the next she’s sacrificing her life for one of them. Where were her conversations with Laia about her feelings? About why she chose to come back? About her thoughts on Keenan and Elias?
The chapter endings were not as clever or nearly as suspenseful as last time. There was no pattern of give and take with the information that connected the perspectives. I think it must be because Helene’s perspective was added in, not that I’m complaining. The chapter endings were abnormally good in the first book and here they are average, which isn’t a problem in an otherwise great book.
Before I break down our three main characters in depth, I want to take a second to discuss how Tahir approached writing them, in general. The first book made me feel like I was experiencing things with the characters and in this one, I felt quite out of the loop. I was witness to what was happening to the characters, not living and learning with them. I can’t say whether this distance was created on purpose. I will say that this could make or break the next book, depending on whether the issue is resolved or not.
Laia became frustratingly weak in this book, which was incredibly frustrating. Regardless of how it was due to circumstance, it’s painful to watch someone so strong become so reliant on others to make decisions and validate her self-worth. This is not an issue with the writing, I know it was all on purpose and to build Laia up stronger in the next book, it was more an issue from a reader’s perspective. Even in Laia’s strongest moments, she sounded somewhat whiny. Her everlasting determination was the only tangible thing that made reading from her point of view bearable.
Elias was lovely, as always. His character development was slow, realistic, and suited to the plot. I appreciate how Tahir let the reader get to know Elias better through more subtle means than dumping exposition.
Helene is surprisingly, my new favorite character! I always thought she was cool, I mean, how could you not? This book just opened my eyes up to so much more about her than her fighting skills and unwavering loyalty. Her character had some sharp developments at the end, which I expect will be fully explained in the next book, so there’s no need to worry.
The love triangle between Elias, Laia, and Keenan was never that exciting. Of course, this is a YA novel, so it can be understood the readers live for the drama. Love them or hate them (I lean towards the latter), love triangles and a cliche boost that some stories need. In the first book, the tension worked. In my mind, Elias and Keenan had about equal chances. In the second book, that tension didn’t exist anymore. Elias and Keenan were never in direct competition with each other. Laia had her separate romances with the each of them in separate moments without overlap of feelings, ruining the main sentiment of a love triangle.
Let’s talk about the major plot twists. The Nightbringer one was surprising. I vaguely remembered something about the Nightbringer being Keenan from the first time I read this book, however I didn’t remember the details about why, how, and for how long. I felt personally impacted by his betrayal, which is not an easy thing for an author to do. It shows that Tahir created a genuine connection between the reader and her fictional characters. If I had to scrutinize the reveal, I would only say that I wish Laia reacted more. Everything was flying by so fast at that point that I didn’t get to see her properly mourn and talk about her loss. I expect this will be coming in the next book, so I’m not that worried. Elias’ decision to become the Soul Catcher was pretty obvious. Nevertheless, it was the perfect way to develop Elias’ character and I like how Tahir wasn’t afraid to bring him so close to death. Yes, there was a loophole (as there often is in YA), yet it made sense as wasn’t that much better than death, itself.
The ending was the definition of mic-drop. Tahir gave me everything I could have wanted in those last two pages and ended it with the perfect 2 lines. They wrapped up the story and left me pumped to pick up the next book. I practically ran to pull A Reaper at the Gates off my shelf.
I know my review sounds overly negative, although I didn’t mean for it to come off that way. I LOVE this book enough to give it 4 stars, and more importantly, I LOVE this series. A Torch Against the Night had it’s problems, but that doesn’t take away from the happiness I felt while reading it. My issues were nit-picky, not fundamental to my enjoyment of the story, which is far more important.