For those of us who love to read, we find our ways. Growing up, I mastered the art of reading in absolutely any situation: while eating, while stretching, doing chores, mopping the floor, you name it. I once finished half a book while walking on a treadmill because I needed to handle the stress the plot was causing me. Today, the sight of a library or a bookstore and the thought of a new, exciting read still leaves me breathless.
So if you’re like me and you’re always doing this:
…but you aren’t sure what book to pick up, look no further. If you look at the world post-Harry Potter with dismay and are always looking for another read to dive into, this might be the one to get into.
“A Torch Against the Night” by Sabaa Tahir is a refreshing epic tale that truly sweeps you away with its meticulous detail and otherworldly feel. Here’s why you should read it immediately.
1. It’s the sequel to the heart-racing bestseller: “An Ember in the Ashes”
For those who read “An Ember in the Ashes” and had your minds blown, rest assured this sequel is totally worth the hype. The world created in the first is carried forth in an honest way.
The theme of an unjust society, mired in its greed to marginalize, subdue, and control runs through the first and is amplified in the second. Books three and four are also on their way. It promises to be a memorable series. If you haven’t read the first one, get to it already!
2. It’s written by a woman of color.
Sabaa Tahir is a uniquely talented author and defies all labels. Her merit as an author is understood from page 1, and she can define herself as that without needing a clarifying label attached to the word “author.”
That being said, she is also writing in a world that does not traditionally feature people who look like her, and every breakthrough into a field in which we’re not expected or accepted is a cause to celebrate. So here’s a huge shout-out to diversity in storytelling and her unique perspective.
3. It evokes inspiration from South Asia and the Middle East as well as the Roman Empire.
Ok, just kidding, not like that exactly. 😉 It’s more like, the novel has words and phrases influenced by Urdu and Hindi, major languages in South Asia and supernatural creatures familiar to stories in the region. Besides inevitably invoking the leaders of Rome and the gruesome brutality of their times, the books pull lore from beyond where the literature of Europe and the United States usually goes. This is truly refreshing, and this is where Tahir’s relevance as a writer of color comes in. The stories and experience she grew up hearing go beyond the Western norm.
Examples? The concept of “izzat” is introduced in the first novel. The term as used in the novel connotes extreme loyalty, honor, and fealty, and Laia invokes it in order to gain the support of the Scholars for her cause. In Urdu, the word means respect and honor. The novel also features supernatural creatures called Wraiths, Efrits, and Jinn, the latter of which are said to be made of fire. Jinn and Ifrit are frequently invoked in Islamic mythology and theology as creatures made of fire, who are much like human beings, varied in their morality and with the power of choice. The language used by a Tribal girl also sounds mysteriously like Urdu.
It is hard to describe the leap of joy that I felt every time I read a word or a concept pulled from a vocabulary I’ve grown up with. The hunger for representation, for the names and nomenclature of my culture to be recognized grows. Tahir’s use of the language, which is also influenced by Arabic, also makes for some colorful, wonderful character names. Afya Ara Nur, Elias’s alternate name Ilyaas, Gibran, amongst many more, and my personal favorite, Aunt Hira. It was the first time I’d read my name within a New York Times bestseller.
4. It has strong female characters.
The most compelling quality to the lead characters Laia and Helene is that they epitomize both emotional and physical strength. Laia is not taken as a serious threat to the Empire, but she proves otherwise by using her compassion and empathy to propel herself into action. She stands by her convictions and refuses to compromise them in times of unrest.
The hunger for representation, for the names and nomenclature of my culture to be recognized grows. Tahir’s use of the language, which is also influenced by Arabic, also makes for some colorful, wonderful character names.
Helene is a Martial soldier and leader among a sea of men that never take her seriously. She makes them regret that line of thinking pretty quickly. The sheer difficulty of the decisions she has to make as part of the oppressive empire is heart-rendering, but she carries the pressure on steady shoulders. These two women are nuanced and complicated, a delight to read and push against the trope of what a warrior looks and acts like.
5. There is no good vs. evil, there is revenge, survival, and a little bit of hope.
The story Tahir paints of her fictional world is one that we are familiar with. The sheer social relevance of the problems within the Empire are uncanny. The Empire’s Martials are dominant. They control and police the Tribes and even enslave the Scholars. Problems arise that grow into a full-scale rebellion. Within this militarized state, characters are constantly grappling with moral decisions.
Each character ends up hurting a score of others, sometimes without meaning to and sometimes with malicious intent. They are grey, are haunted by a string of regrets, but still manage to fight for justice when they can, still try to find a reason to live and help the oppressed. Not only are they fighting their personal demons, characters are forced to carry the ghosts of their ancestor’s deeds and crimes on their backs. Not unlike ourselves, plagued by labels and stereotypes, but still finding a way to fight the good fight.
“A Torch Against the Night” is poetic in its portrayal of a world ripping at its seams. Tahir’s descriptions roll of the page and her words are linked together in ways that will make your heart sing. A highly recommended read for those who enjoy a smart epic.