Laia has grown up in a world where her people, the Scholars, are a captive people. Their great enemy, the Martials, conquered them and have shown no mercy. They imprison the Scholars, they rape the women, they torture and kill those they catch. Laia’s parents were part of the resistance, and they were betrayed and killed, along with her older sister. She and her brother Darin lived with their grandparents, trying to fly under the radar of the Martials — until one day, when they don’t. And the Masks come for them, kill her grandparents, take Darin. Laia barely gets away.
Elias has grown up at Blackcliff, the military school that trains the Martial Masks. An unwanted bastard son of Blackcliff’s Commander, he spent the years before he turned 6 with the Tribal people in the desert. Then the Augurs — the mystic, magical, immortal Martial prophets — came for him and thrust him into a kill-or-be-killed world. The only way he survived was because of Helene, his fellow student and best friend. Now, just as he is graduating and dreaming of freedom, the Augurs decide it’s time for a new emperor and pit Elias and Helene against each other and two other students in a bid to be emperor (or die).
I think the most logical comparison read for this book is Game of Thrones. This is brutal, unflinching, dark, violent, harsh … there’s magic, but it takes a back seat to the exploration of Martial culture. Yet underneath all of that dark is a hope, a light. Elias, for all the terrible things he’s done (and that have been done to him), turns out to be a decent human being. Laia, even though she thinks of herself as weak, has a quiet strength and bravery to her that isn’t readily seen or valued. It’s a very human book, as well: the characters are complex and messy, there’s depth even to the most hateful of characters (Marcus and the Commander, I’m looking at you) that makes them understandable, even if they aren’t likable.
In fact, the only thing I didn’t like about this book was that there are many unresolved issues and many unanswered questions at the end. Then again, if this is the quality of writing that Sabaa Tahir gives us with her first book, I only have high hopes for where this story is going to go.
Rated: Moderate. Could even go High. It’s dark and it’s brutal, more so than The Hunger Games. It’s incredibly violent, and sometimes graphically so, including some attempts at sexual violence. But there’s no language and no sex.