YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: Moderate
Most glorious Ashers,
Apparently this book was hyped hither and yon before its release, so everyone was anticipating the next Perfect Young Adult Novel—and although it nailed it for a lot of readers, it whiffed for others.
I won't lie, I was hoping for a four-and-a-half-star reading experience. And I almost got it.
Did Andrew have to pry my fingers off it before I'd get some sleep? Yes. Did I flinch away from it (innocuous on my nightstand) the next day, knowing it'd drag me down into dark places and then not let me go until Andrew intervened again? Yes.
Did I love it for affecting me so deeply? Yes.
And despite its flaws, I think you might love it, too.
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.
Oh, man. I'm going to try to keep this list fairly short, because (a) you should just read the book, and (b) the time you spend reading this letter is delaying your reading of the book.
The Power of Dual POV
Laia and Elias are both first-person-POV narrators, and thank goodness for that.
The story's messages about power, desperation, loyalty, family, and perceptions of self are all strengthened by the perspectives of these two characters. I won't offer you proof of all those messages because go read the book already, but here's a smidge on power and desperation:
Laia—whose people, the Scholars, have been oppressed, victimized, slaughtered, enslaved by the reigning Martials—enters the military academy Blackcliff as a spy for the Resistance in exchange for their help freeing her brother Darin from his fate of death-by-torture in the Martial prisons. More specifically, Laia enters Blackcliff as the new personal slave to one of the most powerful people in the Empire: the Commandant of Blackcliff.
When the leader of the Resistance, Mazen, tells Laia that she's to both serve and spy on the Commandant, neither Laia nor Handsome Resistance Dude Keenan are thrilled.
Laia shows us the Empire and Blackcliff from the perspective of the abused and the powerless—and, more specifically, the abused and powerless who are pushed by desperation to act against their oppressors.
Elias, meanwhile, is the heir to one of the most powerful families in the Empire, grandson of a nearly legendary general and son of the sadistic Commandant of Blackcliff herself. He's spent fourteen years surviving the rigorous (to put it blandly) Mask training at Blackcliff, and is days away from graduating at the top of his class.
And while everyone else is celebrating their graduation, Elias intends to tear off his mask, slip out through the catacombs, and abandon the Empire—and his family—for good.
See, he doesn't particularly agree with the Empire's tendency to slaughter and enslave whole populations, or—as we see in stomach-churning detail early in the book—making a ritual of beating little boys to death for disloyalty.
Laia's desperate to save her brother. Elias is desperate to escape. Both are forced to face the atrocities of the Empire's rule while pursuing their goals, and the result is—for me—an overwhelming sense of how incredibly screwed everyone in this Empire is, no matter who they are.
All the thumbs up.
A Terrifying (Female!) Antagonist
Since I've mentioned the Commandant, let me reiterate that she is terrifying.
How neat is it that this book provides a female as the powerful, sadistic, horror-inducing antagonist? So neat.
Even in those rare moments when she approaches sympathetic, such as when Laia appears to have just been raped (not the case) and the Commandant in a fury tells the man to keep his hands off her slave, she manages to skim through oh she's kind of human after all and bulldoze right back into holy shit this person's insane.
Seriously, if she's present on the page, time slows to a nightmare crawl. I love it.
Also excellent: almost every relationship is complicated by the characters' fears and desires and ambitions and expectations. You know, like the relationships between real people!
There are too many interesting relationships to describe here, so I'll just highlight two: those between the two protagonists and their most illustrious family members.
Laia's the secret daughter of famous (and famously martyred) Resistance leaders, and the truth of her birth is a secret she's been happy to keep—until she realizes that the Resistance won't help her free her brother unless she tells them who her parents were.
Laia's parents were powerful and glorious, and she flinches away from even the thought of being compared to them. She sees herself as cowardly and weak, and the possibility of becoming like them is (in her opinion) nonexistent.
The internal conflict going on here is A+.
She's also deeply conflicted about her parents' role within the Resistance; yes, the Empire performs unspeakable atrocities against the Scholar people, but what kind of parent abandons their young children to devote themselves to a cause that (a) is hopeless, and (b) will inevitably leave the children orphaned?
Her parents are revered as leaders by the surviving members of the Rebellion, but Laia's view of them as parents is too complicated for reverence. Again, A+.
Elias does his own share of flinching and internal-conflicting, but not because he assumes he can't compete with his amazing relatives:
His mother's sadism and his grandfather's bloodthirstiness haunt Elias, because what if those things are a part of him, too?
Oh, and Elias also gets to share Laia's why was I abandoned? angst! The Commandant, you may have guessed, is not exactly mother-of-the-year material.
Elias was taken in and raised by the nomadic Tribesmen until he was six, at which point the immortal, holy, terrifying Augurs plucked him out of the desert and deposited him at Blackcliff to begin Mask training.
The Commandant was not pleased to see her abandoned son again, and subsequently made his fourteen years at Blackcliff, uh, memorable. In the coldest and bloodiest ways.
Ashers, I can't express how much joy these conflicted relationships (and all the others!) bring me. So much joy. Realistic, conflicted relationships are my favorite.
These People Are Human
The relationships work so well because of how perfectly (imperfectly?) human the characters are. Their flaws and blind spots and weaknesses and mistakes are believable and understandable, and beautifully painful to read.
For example! Laia considers herself a coward and a traitor to her family because she didn't act to protect her grandparents or brother when their house was attacked by the Martial legionnaires (led by a Mask who threatens to rape Laia) in the middle of the night. She watches with horror as her grandparents are murdered and her brother arrested:
And the memory of her decision to run does haunt her. She spends most of the book dripping with self-loathing.
But here's where it gets really good: Laia's horror at her own decision to run doesn't immediately (or even quickly) turn her into a Selfless and Fearless heroine who defeats all her enemies with pure moxie, thereby absolving her of her regretful choice. This book is way too good for that.
Nope, Laia struggles throughout the story with both her decision to run and her overwhelming fear of what will happen to her next. Because Laia's a Scholar living in the brutal Martial Empire. Because Laia is a pretty (and powerless) girl in a society that doesn't frown on rape. And also because Laia knows that the Commandant—whom she'll be slave to, and whom she'll spy on—mutilates every slave in her possession, and kills most of them.
Laia's reaction to this knowledge isn't a stiff-backed, clenched-jawed "Let them do their worst."
Laia does endure horrors and abuse, and she comes thisclose to breaking her resolve, and she doubts she can do what's necessary, and—ultimately—doubts her ability to survive.
But all the while she's getting stronger, and proving herself heartbreakingly brave. She just can't see this slow change, herself.
Trauma Portrayed Well
I have an unspeakable amount of respect for authors who portray trauma in unflinching, honest terms, and Tahir definitely does that.
This is a world of casual sexual assault and abuse, the ever-present threat of torture, and the glorification of violence. Does Tahir inform the reader of this, then swaddle her vulnerable characters in thick fleece to protect them from harm?
The horrors of this world touch every character, and affect them all deeply—it informs their personalities, their ambitions, their fears. It changes them. Which is what trauma really does.
There are books that portray characters as upset or injured after long-term abuse or torture, but completely unaffected after the tears dry and the injuries heal. Those books do a serious disservice to both the horrifying reality of abuse/torture and the characters/people who endured it.
This is not one of those books.
A Multi-Ethnic Setting And Non-White Characters
Leaving all the dark stuff behind: hurrah for a sensible multi-ethnic setting!
The Roman Empire (on which the Martial Empire is based) united many diverse ethnic groups, and I loved seeing how cobbled-together the Martial Empire really is.
And although I could be wrong, I read both Laia and Elias as people of color within what appeared to be a majority-white Empire. Needless to say, this ratcheted my enthusiasm for the book up a notch or three.
Why could I be wrong about them being people of color, you ask? Well.
Elias is the Commandant's son, but only the Commandant knows who his father is. However, I suspect that Elias's father was a desert Tribesman, both because of (what I took to be) a hint toward the end of the book, and because Elias really looks like the desert Tribesmen who raised him:
If his father was in fact a Tribesman, Elias would be a biracial person of color.
I'll note that his dark skin and hair are never remarked upon by his fellow Martials, but his unknown heritage and illegitimacy are favorite targets for Elias's rivals to make jabs at.
So, yes. He might not be biracial, and perhaps I'm wrong about Martials' skin color staying within the pale spectrum. But I liked reading him that way, and I'm tagging him as a biracial person of color until I learn I'm mistaken.
As for Laia: the Scholars generally seem to be pale-ish (red-headed Keenan; Laia's blue-eyed grandmother, her honey-haired mother and brother), but Laia herself is described as being dark-skinned and dark-haired:
She got her looks from her father, who was golden-eyed and black-haired, with high cheekbones and full lips. We don't know much about his background, but his name and appearance leaned me toward viewing him as maybe a Tribesman, or descended from one. Which would make Laia, like Elias, potentially biracial. Maybe.
Honestly, although Laia's description (and its contrast to the pale Martials, who dominate her world and dehumanize her people) made it super easy for me to view her as a person of color, I'm possibly/likely wrong. She (and her father) might just happen too be darker than most of the other Scholars.
But I imagined her as a person of color, and gladly.
I love these two (ambiguously/potentially POC) protagonists. I love this setting. I love the desert and its Tribesmen. I love the history of the Scholars' rise and fall. I love the legends and mythology, the hints of other cultures absorbed into the Empire.
Please someone point me to more multi-ethnic empire settings like this for me to get my greedy hands on.
This book is amazing, but it's not perfect.
First let me mention that I looked side-eye at the previously-mentioned Trials or Games (ToG) that certain characters have to participate in; I'm not entirely sold on the logic behind them. But there's also holy men and prophecy and magic involved, so I'm willing to believe that holiness/prophecy/magic legitimately outweighs logic in this world. Hopefully the sequel will set my side-eyeing to rest.
Second, I didn't get much of a sense of the Empire outside Blackcliff. We know (a) it's a large swath of land containing multiple ethnic groups, (b) it's ruled by an Emperor, (c) the Emperor's second-hand-man is the Blood Shrike, and (d) the Emperor and Blood Shrike don't live near Blackcliff. Blackcliff and its city are well described, but the Empire surrounding it (not to mention the government running it) are really nebulous.
I also had a couple little nitpicks (which, on second thought, I'll not bring up because wow this letter's already pretty long), and two larger complaints that I think are worth discussing in more detail.
How Has Elias Survived This Long?
Elias graduates from Blackcliff as a full-fledged Mask early in the book. Why are they called Masks, you ask? Because awesome.
(Actually, it's because as trainees, they're given liquid-metal masks that sort of melt permanently onto their faces over time. Like I said: awesome.)
But Elias's Mask is an anomaly.
The fact that his Mask hasn't melded with him is gleefully harped on by Elias's primary rivals, who claims it's proof (alongside Elias's myriad alarmingly nonconformist behaviors) that Elias isn't truly loyal to the Empire—which is (need I remind you) 100% the case.
If the Emperor's right-hand man (known as the Blood Shrike) got wind of Elias's Mask issue and behavioral oddities, he'd come tearing down to Blackcliff to determine by any means necessary (torture) where Elias's loyalties lie.
This is a society that cheers while beating ten-year-olds to death for disloyalty. Surely someone at some point would have felt the need to call the Blood Shrike down on Elias's head. So why didn't they?
Yeah, Elias's mother is the Commandant, but everyone knows she hates him and goes out of her way to make his life hell. Yeah, Elias's grandfather is a famous general, but he's loyal to the Empire; he couldn't stand against the Empire, especially to protect a likely traitor. So I don't think it's fear of his powerful family's wrath that prevents people from sending for the Blood Shrike.
I do have a theory: authorial interference for the sake of the plot. Because (a) if the Blood Shrike was called down, the story would have been very different/would not have happened at all, (b) if Elias didn't blatantly exhibit nonconforming behaviors, he'd be much less sympathetic to the reader, and (c) if his Mask wasn't removable, certain important events in the book (and presumably the sequel) wouldn't be possible.
So for the sake of the story, Elias needs to be unknown to the Blood Shrike, but exhibit disloyal behaviors and have a removable Mask—even though none of those things really make sense within the logic of this brutal Empire.
The ends probably justify the means (the book is awesome!), but I dislike even hints that an author's waving a magic wand to make impossible things possible for the sake of the plot.
(But who knows—maybe the sequel will resolve this mystery for me, and the answer will be 100% logical and 0% magic-wand-waving. My fingers are crossed!)
An Unconvincing Romance
Are you looking for a book with a love polygon? Look no further!
Oh, unless you want a love polygon that feels fleshed-out on all four ends, in which case: keep looking.
Laia and Elias are each attracted to two people. For Laia, it's Elias and Keenan, the Handsome Resistance Dude who acts are her point of contact while she's spying on the Commandant. For Elias, it's Laia and Helene, fellow Mask and his best friend since age six.
The triangle between Elias, Laia, and Helene is fantastic. It's rich and nuanced and complex and all those other good words. If every book featuring a love triangle had one this well-written, I'd die blissful.
The relationship between Laia and Keenan, meanwhile, is, uh, lacking.
I'd actually assumed that Laia's only real attraction was to Elias, and that she was just aware of Keenan as a handsome guy—you know, the kind of awareness that results in her feeling awkward and blushy around him, but nothing more.
And then Keenan gets all gooey about his feelings for her:
And then an immortal holy man looks deep into Laia's being and tells her what he sees:
And meanwhile, I'm thinking, What the hell, seriously?
Her encounters with Keenan are generally brief and focused on her mission; they don't have an opportunity to build trust or affection or anything. Yeah, they talk about their families a little (both lost their families to the Martials), and they share a moment of understanding through that loss, but I don't buy any kind of deeper attachment between them. Much less her heart yearning for him, or whatever.
As a result, all of the Keenan/Laia romance bits felt overdrawn and forced to me, which is a shame. Would've really enjoyed a genuine, well-written love polygon.
Issues aside, this is, obviously, a beautiful and powerful book, and it didn't make for light reading. I'm not kidding when I say that it was as hard to pick back up each day as it was to put down each night; I'd wake up knowing that more pain and violence and horror awaited, and I had to mentally prepare myself for it before I could continue reading.
And, goodness, the writing style is lovely, the chapter breaks are expertly crafted, the tension is kept high, and I am so glad I bought it. Tahir is an amazing writer, and one to keep
a close eye an unblinking stare on.
Needless to say, I'm going to buy the sequel, A Torch Against the Night, the moment it becomes available.
(Also, since I mentioned A Torch Against the Night, you definitely must watch this video, because it's of friends fully committing to playing book title charades.)
Now, Ashers, kindly record some more Let's Plays, and ruffle the cat for me.