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Our hearts beat – control them! October 14, 2016

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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A Torch Against the Night, the follow up to Sabaa Tahir’s YA epic fantasy An Ember in the Ashes, certainly puts its readers through the emotional wringer. Tahir’s world is one whose ordinary inhabitants suffer under the constant oppression of an occupying force: the military and rulers (the two are in many ways one and the same) of the Martial Empire. In creating her Martial oppressors, Tahir drew heavily on Rome, while her Scholar and Tribespeople underclass have cultures, mythologies and folklore modelled on the Middle East. It’s an excellent combination. The power of the Martial Empire is not absolute, and the cracks — a burgeoning resistance movement, dissent in the military ranks, a priestly class apparently following its own agenda, and conflicts breaking out among its ruling families — were already apparent in An Ember in the Ashes. Into this volatile mix stepped two characters: Laia, a terrified, traumatised Scholar girl who took on a dangerous spying role in exchange for the resistance movement saving her imprisoned brother, and Elias, the abused, unwanted son of the Commandant of the Martial Empire’s Blackcliff military training academy. Both were self-sacrificing beyond reason, and both were, in their own ways, being treated as weapons to be wielded by the people who controlled them: the Blackcliff hierarchy in Elias’ case, the resistance in Laia’s. Over the course of the book, the pair struggled to break free from the tense, terrifying control others had over them, and realised that their combined strength and differing perspectives gave them something they lacked when alone: hope, and a chance to change the world. Both had conflicting loyalties — Elias to the other Blackcliff trainees next to whom he’d grown up, above all the patrician, loyal, perfect soldier Helene Aquilla (the sole female Blackcliff warrior in his cohort), Laia to her network of resistance fighters and the ragged band of servants she drew into her orbit while spying in Blackcliff.

The tragedy of both characters — and one which Tahir throws into sharp perspective in A Torch Against the Night — is that they are naturally emotionally expressive, compassionate people, with an intense love for others, but are led to believe that they must stamp out these extremities of emotion — above all, their growing love for one another — for the good of the political cause. Both push their personal feelings aside because they believe their energies must be invested in the task at hand: freeing Laia’s brother from prison, saving the fugitive Scholars from genocide, and overthrowing the might of the Martial Empire. What they fail to understand is that they were drawn to such tasks because of their deep love and sense of responsibility for other people; their emotions give them power, and their love for each other is a source of strength, not a hindrance. Over the course of the novel, their empathy and selflessness is contrasted repeatedly with the actions of cruel, selfish and self-centred people, while the growing group of people from many different backgrounds who help and support them reflects their ability to lead by inspiration and hope, rather than by force and fear.

Where An Ember in the Ashes was claustrophobic — its action confined, for the most part, to the narrow corridors and networks of rooms and tunnels of the Blackcliff Academy and the complicated political machinations going on within — A Torch Against the Night is sweeping in scale, as Laia, Elias and their shifting network of friends, allies and antagonists become caught up in the broader political and military tensions of the region. For this reason, Tahir’s decision to expand her number of point-of-view characters to three, giving us Helene’s perspective as well as Elias and Laia’s, is welcome. While Elias and Laia’s journey takes place among wandering Tribespeople and fugitive scholars fleeing Martial persecution, Helene gives us eyes on the imperial court — on the upper echelons of Martial might, and on new emperor Marcus’s disastrous and dictatorial decisions. Helene’s story is equally tragic: she was brought up to be a loyal soldier of the Empire, assured that her loyalty (even in the face of acts of barbarism) would save the entire world’s existence, and that she must put aside all personal desire and be a dutiful servant to the Empire, no matter how cruel and damaging or downright irrational the actions of its emperor.


Artwork of Laia by Jay Bendt.

If all this sounds a little bit grim, rest assured that there is hoping shining out amid all the darkness. Although Tahir’s characters include a lot of soldiers and warriors, it is in the character of Laia that the novel makes its strongest statement: there are many different kinds of strength, and the most powerful of all is the ability to endure, to be frightened, to be forced to make bargains and compromises, and to come out with the capacity to love, to feel empathy and kindness intact. Where Laia lacks physical strength she makes up for it in endurance, the ability to forge clever alliances and offer hope for other people, and a kind of moral courage that illuminates and inspires. She’s one of my favourite YA heroines, and I look forward to seeing where her adventures take her, Elias, Helene and the other characters in the final two books of Tahir’s series.