Sabaa Tahir’s debut young adult novel, An Ember in the Ashes, lit up the summer of 2015. Fans have eagerly been awaiting the sequel, A Torch Against the Night, and it’s finally here. Torch picks up exactly where Ember left off, and takes readers on a fast-paced and breathless journey through the heart of Tahir’s fantasy world as Laia fights to rescue her brother Darin and evade the Martial Empire. We had the chance to chat with Tahir and ask all of our burning questions. Check out what she had to say about Helene, the Commandant, and books three and four below.
**Reader Beware: Some A Torch Against the Night spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.**
Bookish: What’s one thing you learned during the process of writing book one that helped you when writing book two? What’s something you learned from book two that you think will help when writing book three?
Sabaa Tahir: When I was writing book one I realized that all of my themes have to be working towards something and that my characters needed to have really specific goals they were always working towards. You can use this to structure a scene and make it flow more easily. I didn’t realize that until way later in the process of working on book one, but I definitely used that knowledge when writing book two.
In book two, I learned that I needed to freewrite. I tried to completely plot the story ahead of time thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is going to save me a ton of time.” Instead, it actually added more time and ended up being really difficult to work around. So what I hope to bring to book three is the realization that there is a happy medium between freewriting and plotting, and that doing those things together will result in a better outcome.
Bookish: What moment in A Torch Against the Night have you been dying to see readers’ reactions to?
ST: Let me think. I blocked out the writing of it because it was such a long and torturous process. But I would love to see fans’ reactions to the very last chapter of the book, the very last sentence. I have been working towards that sentence for two books and eight years, so it was a huge moment for me. I closed my laptop and started sobbing when I wrote the end because I was so relieved that I got there, to that point, to the last line. I would love to see readers’ reactions to that, and I hope readers feel the payoff there. Like, “Sorry, guys! Didn’t meant to put you through all that. Here have a happy moment!”
Bookish: Helene’s point of view is introduced in this book, and it’s both incredible and painful watching the journey she takes. How has your understanding of her as a character changed or evolved during the process of writing this sequel?
ST: I realized that Helene has more love in her than I really understood. I always knew she was capable of great love, but not quite as much as I now realize. She also has a lot of darkness in her and a lot of blindness when it comes to what she is going to accept and what she’s not. There’s a point in Torch where the Commandant says some terrible things and Helene’s reaction to it is less than what I wanted from her. In that moment, I expected better from her. But as I was writing it, I knew that this is what would actually happen because it’s who Helene is and what she has been trained to be. I think it really helped me understand that Helene had a lot of growing yet to do, but that she has come a very long way since book one.
Bookish: The Martial Empire was heavily inspired by Ancient Rome. Can you share some of your inspirations when writing about the Tribespeople?
ST: The Tribesmen and Tribeswomen were directly inspired by Bedouin and migrant cultures of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and to some degree South Asia. I combined different elements of Bedouin cultures with things that I wanted to see. A lot of tribes tend to be, particularly now, patriarchal. So I made Afya, my Bedouin Tribeswoman, a bit more powerful, the kind of woman who fought to get to the top of the food chain.
I was also inspired by the tribal idea of loyalty—someone takes food at your table and you protect them while they’re in your care. I say that very broadly because I want to make it clear that each tribe has its own specific rules. For the series, I researched migrant tribes that did a lot of migrating with animals and picked and chose different elements that I thought would work for the tribes I was creating.
Bookish: One of the most fascinating characters in the series is Cook! Will we ever learn her full backstory?
ST: Readers will learn a lot more about Cook. I don’t know if I’ll ever reveal her full backstory because that’s a lot to try and show. But you’re definitely going to learn way more about her: why she’s so bent on vengeance and what her issues with the resistance are.
Bookish: There’s something so incredibly real about the friendship between Helene and Elias. Most of us don’t have the experience of a best friend attempting to kill us, but we do know what it’s like when a friend changes and becomes someone we don’t know. What challenges came with writing about their dynamic?
ST: It was rough for me to find a way to see the humanity and the goodness in both of them when I knew they were hurting each other so badly. My heart goes out to Helene because Elias betrayed her, but my heart also goes out to Elias because he’s trying to be a good person and that’s antithetical to the Martial Empire, and Helene is a Martial through and through.
Bookish: One of my favorite characters is the mysterious Soul Catcher. Can you tell us how you came up with that character and the forest domain she oversees?
ST: The Soul Catcher has been in my mind for years now. I originally brought her into the first book and realized a couple of years into writing that she didn’t work there, so I had to move her. She’s definitely been a very important character to me. I wanted to explore the lines between life and death. How does death impact us, how does it change us? Are certain people more drawn to the afterworld than others? Can those people walk that world more easily? What do you have to do to understand death? What would you have to go through? How does it affect you when you deal with death constantly? What would shepherding spirits do to a creature of flesh and blood and not a spirit? All of those questions are things that I tied into her character, personality, and past—which readers do learn more about in Torch. I had been wanting to put her in a book for a long time, so I am very excited to be able to finally introduce her to readers.
As for the Forest of Dusk and the Waiting Place, I had known for a long time what they were and just needed to wait for Elias and Laia to travel closer to work it in. In book one, you see that the Marinn people have not been conquered by the Martial Empire. Part of the reason is because they have a giant impenetrable forest on their western border. In book one, you don’t know why the forest is impenetrable, you just know you can’t get through it. I was so happy to be able to finally share the reason why.
You can’t put everything in one book, so I’ve had all of this worked out for a long time. There are so many things about book three and four that are already worked out, and that I’ve dropped hints for in book one and two. But I can’t reveal that stuff because it’s part of a series and has to happen over the course of many books.
Bookish: On your website, you interview debut authors each month. If you could interview one character from your series, who would it be and what question would you most want to ask them?
ST: That’s hard because I know them so well, but I would probably want to interview Laia. I’d want to ask her what makes her keep going, what gives her her determination and where does she get that it from? I think the goal of an interview is to always reveal something about a person that could help the reader of the interview—make them feel more seen or make them feel a connection. I think what Laia would have to say would probably help a lot of people out there. I know it would help me when I’m going through a rough time.
Bookish: In Ember in the Ashes, Elias faces the Trials. The first forces him to confront his greatest fear, and as the story continues he sees that fear realized in the deaths of his friends at his own hand. If you were in the Trials, what would your fear be?
ST: My Trial of fear, I already know it, would be anything happening to my family. I am desperately protective of both of my children and also my parents, my husband, and my brothers. Having to face anything happening to them would be my trial of fear. It would be like when Molly Weasley faces the boggart and she sees her family dead and collapses into tears—that is 100% me.
Bookish: We’re halfway through the series now, and readers are already speculating wildly about what they can expect from the final book. What feeling do you hope to leave readers with in that last book? And what is a book series ending that you, as a reader, felt was done perfectly?
ST: Well I hope readers take away from the last book the same message I want them to take away from all of the books, and that’s the idea that hope is stronger than fear and it’s stronger than hate. I don’t think that is a message that can ever be drummed into people enough, including myself.
As for series that I thought ended really well, I really loved how Renée Ahdieh ended The Wrath and the Dawn series, that was such a good series. I know this isn’t super popular, but I actually really liked how J.K. Rowling ended Harry Potter. And I liked how the Lord of the Rings movies ended. The books went on for a while, but I do like how the film version does it. I thought that was a great ending, very bittersweet.
Bookish: I’ve read The Wrath and the Dawn, and I have The Rose and the Dagger but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. I might have to bump it up my list.
ST: It’s a great book. I mean, full disclosure, Renée is one of my best friends, so I’ve read multiple drafts of that book. I think she did pretty amazing stuff with magic and the idea of war and what we fight for and what we die for, and how love can change and how you sometimes need to accept that change as opposed to trying to fight it and thinking that it just needs to be what it was when you first felt it.
Bookish: The ending of Torch leaves readers with a few hints of what they can anticipate from the next book: more about Elias’ father, and more from Helene’s sister. What are you most excited to explore in the third and fourth books?
ST: I’m really excited to explore the romance between some of the characters. I’m not going to say who because I don’t want to ruin the book, but I’m excited to explore that because I think it’s going to be really interesting. I’m also very excited to explore the idea that a family legacy can taint us as well as making us stronger. That’s a theme I’ve already touched on a lot.
And I’m actually very excited to tell readers more about the Commandant and show where she comes from. And the supernatural world—I’m excited about a lot of things!—I can’t wait for readers to see more of that. That’s the part of the world that’s waking up, as you’re reading you’re seeing more and more of that because our characters are seeing more and more. As an author, it’s fascinating to explore those worlds, create the rules for those worlds, and figure out how these creatures, like humans, will try to subvert those rules for their own gain or their own benefit. It’s a lot of fun.
Sabaa Tahir grew up in California’s Mojave Desert at her family’s eighteen-room motel. There, she spent her time devouring fantasy novels, raiding her brother’s comic book stash, and playing guitar badly. She began writing An Ember in the Ashes while working nights as a newspaper editor. She likes thunderous indie rock, garish socks, and all things nerd. Sabaa currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.