Author: Sabaa Tahir
Published Feb. 9 2016 by Razorbill
Genre: YA fantasy
Date finished: May 18, 2018
Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
My thoughts (spoiler free)
Since the third book in this series is coming out in a few weeks, and this one has been sitting on my Kindle, I figured it was time to pick it up. And it was the perfect tense, exciting, dark fantasy to read right at the end of my semester!! I immediately felt drawn into the world and the lives of the characters. I’m hoping I can get to the next book as well before A Reaper at the Gates comes out!
The two central characters in this are Laia and Elias, both of whom have their own storylines and take alternating POV chapters.
Laia has just lost everything when this story starts out – her only option left is to go undercover in one of the most dangerous places in the Empire, where she has about a 2% chance of success and survival. So things aren’t looking too great for her, to say the least. She goes through some pretty horrible stuff throughout the course of this novel, but I so admired her ability to stay strong and think her way out of sticky situations. There were a few times when I was like…girl, get out of there, it’s not even worth it at this point. But she didn’t! Which definitely makes her braver than I would be in her place.
Elias is one of the best soldiers in the Empire, and early on, he is forced to make a decision that shapes his entire future. His character arc was so interesting to read. The trust that he has in fate, that everything will work out in a certain way, was both frustrating and fascinating. He definitely makes some (a lot of) dumb decisions throughout the novel (lol) but I’m glad he ended up where he did. Also, his background as an outsider to the Empire until being recruited put him in a really interesting position in relation to the world and some of the other characters.
Helene, Elias’ best friend and fellow soldier, was another major character, and my favorite of the side characters. She and Elias were foils in many ways. She certainly doesn’t have the same moral compass that he does, and she makes a LOT of mistakes (in different ways that he does), but I’m really excited to see where the rest of the series takes her character because I think it has a lot of potential!
Like I said, the plot circles around these two characters as they move around their world, occasionally crossing paths. I liked that we got two very different storylines, which allowed us to see many different aspects of this world. Also, it let the two main characters develop separately, before they have the chance to interact and affect each other’s stories.
I’m always a sucker for those “secret rebellion against corrupt ruling power” stories, no matter how many times I read it. Even better when it turns out that even the rebellion is pretty morally grey and not necessarily the good guys. This book delivered. And it had the competition/tournament storyline in there as well, which is always a win!
It’s a very tense story, and even though it doesn’t necessarily move quickly, it kept me engaged and never felt like it dragged. The nature of the dual perspectives means that both of the stories are slowed down somewhat, since you take a break from them between each chapter. But it worked well in this instance.
I wasn’t the hugest fan of the romance plotline, however. Luckily, it was only a few small part of the story, and I imagine it’s going to become more developed in the future. As it is now, I thought it was one of the book’s few weaknesses. Also, love triangles still aren’t my thing.
I enjoyed the writing, for the most part. I felt like I was really able to step into this world and experience it alongside the characters – the descriptive language was rich and evocative. It’s really quite a dark story, and I felt that throughout. I could feel the characters’ despair and anger, making me want to go beat some people up so these characters could catch a break. Still, it never felt unnecessarily grimdark. On a related note, the worldbuilding was phenomenal. The entire world felt so fleshed out and complete without needing to go into long stretches of exposition at any point!
This was a truly enjoyable read that I didn’t want to put down while I was reading it! I was kept interested through the whole story, even though it wasn’t particularly fast-paced or action-y. The strength of the characters, its themes of morality, oppression, and loyalty, and the tension within the world was enough to drive it forward. However, while it had some of my favorite YA tropes (i.e. The Rebellion™), it also had some of my least favorite YA tropes (i.e. The Love Triangle™). But like……it was still great. And I gotta read the next one ASAP.
“You are full, Laia. Full of life and dark and strength and spirit. You are in our dreams. You will burn, for you are an ember in the ashes.”