Second world fantasy set in pre-technological worlds comes with a built-in set of problems for both the writer and the readers – pacing. It is quite possible to write a novel where the characters just walk from one set piece or place to the other. That gets old fast, and you can end up feeling like you’re reading a dull travelogue with bits of violence wedged in.
That is absolutely not a problem with Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against the Night and An Ember in the Ashes. It’s rather the reverse and not a problem at all so long as you have cleared some time to read. These are stripped-down, raw, fast-paced fantasy chase thrillers. Tahir does a lot of smart re-invention of the genre with these novels, weaving themes of ethnicity, immigration and romance into a tight action narrative.
The structure of the novel is key to its enjoyment. Tahir alternates chapters between key characters. In A Torch Against the Night we meet Laia first, as her family is torn asunder in political upheaval. We meet Elias next; he’s a Mask, training at the Blackcliff Military Academy. They’re on opposite sides of a conflict that has an immediate, urgent feel. Power is being wielded by the cruelest and richest, in their own interest. An Ember in the Ashes adds a third character to the mix, offering yet another perspective.
At the prose level, and the immersive-reading-experience level, both of these books read like well-written, psychologically-informed thrillers. Tahir keeps the action close and lets the world speak for itself, laconically. She’s pretty much all show, no tell, and as a result, understanding the nature of the world she’s building becomes a plot tension point. It’s detailed, with a nice mixture of medieval realism with a mere soupcon of the fantastic – at least at first. As we dive deeper into the world, the weird starts to come out of the woodwork. It’s nice to see that she’s mining more than the usual mythologies, drawing most interestingly from middle-Eastern mythos. But she’s not just working with supernatural elements; the novel has a bit of science fiction as well. The result is a world that feels more well-rounded.
A cast of well-drawn characters propels the novel. Laia, Elias, and others (best discovered in-story) are written with a compelling immediacy. Tahir creates a world that is very different from ours, but one that directly and indirectly addresses ours. Given that this is a second-world fantasy, it offers the best of both worlds – gritty realism, thrilling action, and an imagined world where the story unfolds.
Ultimately, both A Torch Against the Night and An Ember in the Ashes offer readers an exhilarating mix of exciting narrative, muscular prose set in a thought-provoking world. Balancing the power of optimism with a dark and gnarly conflict, Tahir evokes emotions we understand in a world we’ve never encountered. Back in our world get some new shadows, and some new light.
<a name=”ttrms” id=” ttrst”> </a>Here’s a link to download the lightning-round interview with Sabaa Tahir, or you can listen at your desk by clicking below.
And here is a link to download my in-depth conversation or take a vacation in another world by listening below.