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.
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Thank you Goodreads and Razorbill for selecting me as a Goodreads Giveaways winner and sending me a free copy of this book!
“There are two kinds of guilt. The kind that’s a burden and the kind that gives you purpose. Let your guilt be your fuel. Let it remind you of who you want to be. Draw a line in your mind. Never cross it again. You have a soul. It’s damaged, but it’s there. Don’t let them take it from you.”
This book was really, really good. There was a good amount of world-building to do, so the first few chapters were complex and slower than the rest. But for good reason: Once I hit a certain point, I took off and never looked back until I hit the end of book 3 (only because book 4 isn’t out yet).
I read this book (as well as all of book 2 and part of book 3) during a 25 in 5 readathon. I hadn’t intended to do the whole series, but Sabaa left me no choice. I was hooked.
“Nan always said that as long as there is life, there is hope.”
Laia is a Scholar, a caste of people at the bottom of the totem pole. Long ago, her people ruled and flourished as they sought higher and higher knowledge, but that was a long time ago. Her parents had fought for (and led) the Scholar Resistance, which aimed to stop the killing of their people by the Empire and bring some power back to the Scholars, but they had been killed. At the beginning of the book, Laia lives with her brother and her grandparents.
All that turns upside down in a heartbeat when a group of Masks (hyper-skilled warriors, almost monsters, that fight for the Empire) invades their house. Her brother doesn’t seem to be the passive man he’d seemed, seeing as he’d been drawing illegal sketches of Empire weaponry. Her brother is taken, and instead of staying to fight for him, Laia runs away.
Ridden by guilt for not staying to fight, Laia finds the Resistance and embarks on a mission to spy on the ultra-evil woman who leads Blackcliff, the training school for Masks. In return, the Resistance promises to find and free her brother.
Meanwhile, Elias is top of his class at Blackcliff, about to graduate as a Mask. Secretly, he hates it and longs to escape so he can’t be made to do the Empire’s bidding anymore. But then the holy Augurs decree that the time has come for a new Emperor to be chosen, and Elias is picked to compete. With no way out of the situation that leaves him alive, he has no choice but to fight through the trials. Elias and Laia are thrown together again and again (with significant romantic tension, as you might expect) as each of them battles their guilt in an effort to do the right thing and escape Blackcliff.
“Fear can be good, Laia. It can keep you alive. But don’t let it control you. Don’t let it sow doubts within you. When the fear takes over, use the only thing more powerful, more indestructible, to fight it: your spirit. Your heart.”
These kinds of books are my guilty pleasure: alternate universes, magic systems, fantastic societies, a burning romance, good vs. evil…the whole nine yards. One thing that usually comes with the territory is battle scenes, and this book is no different. But what I like about this one is that the battles aren’t there for battles’ sake; they don’t ramble on just to be exciting. Each sentence has a purpose, and it never feels like the end of Lord of the Rings when you wish the orcs would just give up already because ewwww.
Also, I absolutely love Elias. He is so raw and human and just plain good. But also strong and protective and determined. Another character, Helene, is also fantastic, although we get a lot more of her in subsequent books. All the characters are round and complex and interesting.
As with any good first book in a series, this one leaves you with more questions than answers. Questions that beg answers. A truly fantastic start to an amazing story.