The rare sequel that improves on the original, Sabaa Tahir's second Ember installment deepens the character development, introduces new forms of magic, and sets the stage for epic books to come. Tahir's smartest decision is to give Helene narrating duties, and it her character that most "makes" A Torch Against the Night such a layered and compelling read. Yes, Laia and Elias are still the main characters, but the story's One True Pairing has a lot to overcome, and the romance (at least between them) takes a backseat to the more practical matters of survival, escape, and the need to break Darin out of the Empire's most notorious prison. It's Helene who is left behind to deal with her own existential crisis about duty, personal sacrifice for public good, and whether to follow a leader she vowed to serve but finds morally despicable.
The magical elements that were hinted at in the first book grow in this installment. Not only does Helene still possess the power to heal, but Elias discovers he can travel between the world of the living and the purgatory-like place that the dead who aren't ready to move on inhabit. And Laia -- well, she has her own talents. There's an even greater villain than the commandant. If she's Darth Vader (hey, she's Elias' birth mom so the comparison works), this villain is the emperor, but an even creepier one that can disguise his true nature. A Torch Against the Night is the kind of adventure fantasy that should appeal to all genre readers, but the romantic tension does increase, and shippers should enjoy the dynamic that a certain new Mask serving under Helene brings to the equation of future possibilities. All readers will benefit from the fierceness of the female characters and Tahir's ability to thoughtfully insert issues of class, race, and injustice in this unputdownable series.