I borrowed this as an e-book from my library back home shortly after I came back to Cambridge, but didn’t get around to reading it until yesterday. I’d heard a bit about it from friends on Goodreads and the like, but beyond that it was set in a ‘Rome-like world’, I didn’t know a whole lot about it.
But I enjoyed it! And I decided to illustrate my review with gifs from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, not because it particularly has anything in common with the book, but just because I can.
Since the world-building is what drew me to the book in the first place, it makes sense that it was the element which stuck with me the most. ‘Rome-like’ is a fair description — we’ve got the Martials, who are soldiers, and that includes legionnaires and auxes (auxiliaries), which is obviously drawing on the Roman military. Then we’ve got the Tribes, who are outsiders. Less clear was the origin of the Scholars, who are poor and mostly can’t read (which isn’t what their name suggests), and various elements of the worldbuilding are totally unique.
For example, we’ve got the Masks, whose silver masks bond to their skin so that their real face can’t be seen. One of our main characters, Elias, is a Mask, but a reluctant one — he takes his off whenever he can, so it hasn’t bonded to him yet. Not like his friend Helene, who is badass and terrifying and seemingly cold-hearted, but really is just frighteningly loyal to the empire.
Laia, on the other hand (semantically, Elias and Laia were weirdly similar names; the first person switching narrative mostly stopped that being a problem, but it was odd) is a Scholar. She can read, and her parents were part of a revolutionary group working against the Empire. They’re dead, and she’s been keeping this a secret, but it means she’s naturally enemies with Elias.
And of course because this is a YA novel, they end up falling in love. Because that always happens.
I may not be a big fan of romance and honestly, in this case, I could take it or leave it — but I wasn’t actively annoyed by it. Although it seemed kind of inevitable because that seems to be a convention of the genre these days, the romance itself wasn’t too obnoxious or lovey-dovey, and while there were a few grand gestures, at least they didn’t spend too much time staring into each other’s eyes and talking about how much they loved each other.
While there were love triangles (interlocking triangles, with both sides having another love interests — is there a word for that? It made a change, anyway) those also didn’t get too much in the way, so I could tolerate it.
I was a lot more interested in the individual characters, though, rather than their feelings for each other. Laia is awesome. During the course of the book she goes through any number of horrible things, and she endures. She’s got a strength born of love for her brother, who has been imprisoned — everything she does, she does because she thinks it’ll help him. She endures pain and humiliation and terror, and she survives.
Elias is also an interesting and engaging character. He’s got the whole ‘reluctant brooding killer’ thing going on, but manages not to spend too much of his time moping, and we really get a sense of who he is and what made him that way without feeling like we’re being manipulated into feeling sorry for him.
And then there’s Helene — I wish we’d got to see her perspective on things, because she was a really fresh and original character. She’s not exactly likeable: she’s the ‘only girl in a male-dominated warrior academy’ character that comes up here and there, so you want to like her solely because she spends every day smashing the patriarchy, but actually she’s a killer and a lot of her behaviour isn’t justifiable despite her backstory.
BUT at the same time, you want to know more about her, you want to see her viewpoint, and while having her narrate would probably kill some of the tension because books rely on the readers not knowing what all the characters are planning, I still kind of wish we’d got to peek into her mind. OH WELL.
On the whole, it was a good book: interesting worldbuilding, engaging characters who, even when fulfilling YA tropes, didn’t become cliches or stereotypes, and a decent plot. It doesn’t entirely resolve, as several of the main goals the characters are trying to achieve are still out of reach at the end of the book, and it’s clearly setting up for a series — while I’d like to see more of these characters, I also wish more books these days were standalones because I find those kinds of endings a bit unsatisfying.
But yeah, it was pretty good, and nice to have a break from difficult uni reading. I even managed to get a review up on time. SUCCESS.