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Books in Brief: A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

young adult

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir; Razorbill, 464 pages, $19.95 Ages 14 and up


“A Torch Against the Night” (named by Entertainment Weekly as “most spectacular sequel” on its summer must list) takes up right in the heat of the action where Sabaa Tahir’s acclaimed debut “An Ember in the Ashes” left off so you really have to read “Ember” first (and you wouldn’t want to miss it anyway). These thrilling fantasies, set in a brutal world inspired by ancient Rome, bear resemblances in various ways to the “Hunger Games,” Harry Potter, Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series and “Game of Thrones,” but Tahir crafts her own unique, complicated universe and her own complex and interesting characters, and she says the violence in the novels was partially inspired by true stories of the Sudanese genocide she helped edit while working at the Washington Post. Like the first book, the sequel is told in the alternating voices of orphaned Scholar teen Laia, desperate to save her brother Darius from a Martial prison, and Elias Veturius, a former Mask assassin for the Martial Empire determined to help Laia save her brother. Elias is a terrific character, abandoned by his cruel mother in the desert and raised by Tribesmen, trained to kill but horrified by the lives he has taken and determine to atone. As in all great YA novels, there’s a love triangle, and the third voice in the sequel is that of Helene Aquilla, a female Mask who is Elias’ best friend from their Blackwell Academy days (a sinister place, where the female commandant likes to brand her kitchen slaves, or perhaps blind them in one eye). Tahir meticulously plots these novels, ramping up the suspense and including plenty of surprises. Her detailed descriptions of the terrain where the books take place give them a welcome realism as does her description of the terrible Kauf Prison where Scholars are being tortured under the command of a sinister Warden who likes to “experiment.” The supernatural elements are deftly woven into the plot. Movies are in the works, and more books are planned.

– Jean Westmoore


Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst; Pamela Dorman Books/Viking (278 pages, $27)


Being a parent is always full of ups and downs, of course, but being the parent of an autistic child, Carolyn Parkhurst writes in her splendid new novel, is a lot like riding a roller coaster that never stops to let you off and catch your breath. Sometimes you marvel at your child’s brilliance. Often, though, you are exhausted by her behavior. You may be prone, like Alexandra Hammond in Parkhurst’s “Harmony,” to compare your growing helplessness to the proliferation of bedbugs in your house.

“It’s like a metaphor come to life, your home polluted with invaders you can’t even see. And what if – you suppose this is the real source of anxiety for most people – what if the invasion goes even deeper than that? You’ve been to the fringe parenting websites and the homeopathy section at Whole Foods. You know that there are people out there who will tell you that it’s too late, that our bodies are already tainted. That we’re overrun with mucus or bacteria or spreading fungal growth. ... Has depression ever been this widespread, or autism or infertility or food allergies? Something’s changed, even if it’s just our own method of record-keeping.”

In “Harmony,” the Hammonds – Alexandra, her husband Josh, and their two daughters, Iris and Tilly, the fiery star around which the family satellites revolve – leave their home in Washington, D.C., for a remote communal camp in New Hampshire, and to Parkhurst’s credit you never question their wisdom in making the move. Their desperation is real, their actions evidence of their need for hope.

Tilly, 13, has been diagnosed with an unspecified “pervasive developmental disorder.”

Like many children on the autism spectrum, Tilly displays genius-level intelligence and creativity; on a shopping trip to buy a birthday gift for a cousin, she suggests “a machine that sings songs to you when you’re sad. It knows when you’re sad, because it has eye-recognition technology, and it can see when there’s a tear.” But she struggles picking up on social cues, is prone to obsessive behavior, unable to fit herself into adult expectations. Her parents don’t know what to do.

Then one night at a Chinese restaurant, Alexandra spots a flier on the bulletin board. “Do You Have a Challenging Kid?” it asks. Does she! It’s her introduction to Scott Bean, who’s seeking families with children on the autism spectrum to join him in a communal living experiment called Harmony. The community will be self-sustaining; guest families will arrive each week for a seven-day stay. But the Hammonds and two other families, plus Scott, will be full-timers, forging a new, hopeful, better future.

The story is narrated mostly by Alexandra, who chronicles the events that drove the Hammonds to Harmony, and Iris, 11, who writes about life at the compound. Iris is smart and observant, quicker than the distracted adults to pick up on Scott’s odd inconsistencies. Tilly also weighs in enigmatically from time to time, adding to the sense of dread.

– Connie Ogle, Miami Herald

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