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.
This is another book that brings about complicated thoughts. It read like a historical fiction book for the first third I want to say. Then the fantasy started coming to life. But note that this is not a high fantasy. This is a story of a revolution in a fantasy world. Don’t come expecting some complex magic system with witches and wizards. You’ll be disappointed. I also want to give you trigger warnings for abuse, torture, and war like atmosphere. I’ll go into these deeper within this review but just a general heads up for those that are emotionally sensitive to such things. With that said, let me get into my areas of critique.
World Building was excellent. Tahir has commented that she drew ideas from ancient Rome. But Ms. Tahir took this historical setting and made it her own. She added fantastical elements and brings legends and myths to life. This world is a brutal and cruel world. And just as Tahir would describe the feeling of being part of a revolution, she also didn’t shy away from describing the more horrific aspects of this world. She uses language that paints vivid imagery in your mind of what these characters are going through on a daily basis. On the plus side, I was never left wondering what a person, place or thing looked like, felt like, ect. Hats off to Tahir for her excellent world building.
Told in dual POV, the story centers around two main characters: Laia and Elias. Laia is a scholar who’s family has all be killed or taken from her. (Not a spoiler, this happens in the first chapter.) She sets out to find the people running the Resistance so they can help her free her brother from jail. In exchange for their help she is placed as a slave in the house of the cruelest lady leader the Empire has so that Laia can spy. Elais is a soilder for the Empire. He’s part of a special league of men called masks. Masks are supposed to dole out justice and enjoy the pain of others but Elias just doesn’t. He pities the scholars and wants nothing to do with being a mask. Both characters have unique voices and distinct stories to tell. While I did find myself occasionally wanting to skip some of Laia’s passages in the beginning it didn’t take long for me to be enthralled in both of their points of view. I thought Laia, Elais and the secondary characters were pretty developed. They all had their own personalities and secrets that left you wanting more time with them.
The plot had me gripped from the very beginning. While it wasn’t an easy breezy read, it did keep my attention and make me want to keep reading. The story is paced well and I liked that where one point of view left off, usually the other picked up at the same time of the same day. At one point I was slightly annoyed with the dual POV because it took so long to set Laia’s up. I was like, “Get there already!” But in hindsight Tahir needed both point of views in order to tell this story properly.
I liked that this story had diverse characters. There were people with disabilities and people of color. The tribes were described in a thoughtful way that still provided color images. In general I felt like the people of color weren’t tokens or just there to be killed. They were solid authentic characters. I liked that those with disabilities weren’t held back by their disabilities. It just became part of who they were. And it also wasn’t the villain with the disabled body which was refreshing.
To answer how this book made me feel we have to go back to those trigger warnings. This is a VERY brutal world. And Tahir doesn’t take the easy way out and let the scene fade to black. She describes the whipping, body carving, and general abuse that goes on in this book. Each trial is accompanied by its own violent actions and they are very detailed. Which is realistic I admit. But I am fairly sensitive to such language. The commandant, the cruel lady leader that Laia works for, disabling/ mutilating her staff as a way of branding them as her own. She has carved out eyes, forced them to swallow hot coals to ruin their voices, and she takes a knife that has been heated to firey red and carves a mark on Laia’s chest. There were many times when Laia would be doing something dangerous and my heart would race in fear that she would be abused or tortured for her spying. There is a scene where Elias has to defeat his enemy to the death for a trail. His enemy turns out to be his best friend leading a squadron of their mutual friends. And he can’t aim to disarm or his own team , also made of friends we met throughout the book, will be slowly killed off by the leaders of the trial. I cried while my heart almost beat itself out of my chest. So you can see that while I thought the writing and everything was so good, this book slightly gave me anxiety.
Overall I enjoyed this book and would suggest it to anyone who likes fantasies that are a little less about magic and more about the world building and the atmosphere that’s being created. Also if you decide to read this I highly suggest taking into account your mental health. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Has anyone else read this book? Comment down below and let me know. I hope you guys are having a wonderful day!