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
I first read this book a year ago and thought it was amazing. I then went back to reread it this year (in the run up to Torch Against the Night) and had forgotten how dark it was. I mean, its still amazing and brilliant, but its not a light read.
The chapters alternate between Laia- who has turned rebel and spy against the leaders and ‘army’ that push down her people- and Elias- who is training to be a Mask, one of the army that she is meant to hate. While both characters stories are interesting, I much prefer Elias.
Laia is a slave and spy in the Commandant house, tasked with watching and listening to everything that is going on in the school. Her chapters are brutal and harsh; the Commandant is an unforgiving character who is happy to scar and break anyone who works for her. Elias’ chapters are no less harsh, but they are, to me, more interesting, more action packed, and his character is one that you feel for- he is training to be a monster, and he hates it. He wants to escape but is stuck at every turn, having to hurt friends and turn enemies with people. A character that has somehow managed to keep his heart and mind in a place where it is trained out of you. Between his interactions with other characters and the tasks he has to complete, I just want to sit and read his whole story and leave Laia- because she just doesn’t seem as important.
What I love about Sabaa Tahir’s writing is that I still feel sorry and my heart still breaks slightly for the evil, cruel character in the book. There are not many authors that can humanise a baddie like that, not many that can make you feel for a character even while wanted to kill them.