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.
DNF @ 65%
This book could have been good. But it needed a lot of additional work to get there.
The opening pages show its simplicity and lack of imagination when introducing the people. We have The Martials – a militaristic gaggle of elitist vulgarians who conquer and subjugate with glee – and The Scholars – a peaceful and learned culture currently being oppressed by the former.
Laia, the female lead, is a scholar. She lives with the daily threat of being captured and sold into slavery. Her parents, who were once rebel leaders, were betrayed by their own. And yet, miraculously, this young woman is unbearably naive. Or, more like unbelievably so. You would think that her circumstances would toughen her up a little, make her a little guarded and weary. Slow to trust.
They do not.
Throughout the roughly 65% I managed to stomach, she was cowardly, weak-willed, and easily manipulated. The frustrating part is how obvious those manipulations are to the reader. And yet time and again she falls prey to the machinations of those who would use her. Which would be fine, had there been character growth. I read over half the book and saw none.
Then we have Elias. He’s a martial. He’s a cut and paste beefcake love interest without much of a personality. There is very little show or even tell to him. He has the typical emotions we allow men to have (i.e. lust, anger , and violence and not much more), and because of this, I spent every chapter told from his perspective entirely disengaged from what was happening to and around him.
On to the villians. There are many in this book. And, as a whole, they lack the shades of gray that make for truly interesting and terrifying characters. No, in this, they’re all sadists, rapists, and murderers. They’re almost comically bad, a parody of themselves.
There are technical issues with this book as well. Poor characterization and long beats in dialogue that an editor should have done away with in the early drafts (seriously, it’s editing 101 these days).
Lastly, and most importantly, the overwhelming mention of rape. I’ve read a lot of books in the fantasy genre. Hundreds, I’d warrant. This book contains the most mentions and threats of rape that I have ever come across. I spent every chapter told through Laia’s perspective waiting for the other shoe to drop. For the threats to escalate to assaults.
I didn’t have to wait long.
I just…this is a YA novel, FFS. With a readership that is predominantly young women. And the female MC never stands up for herself or defends herself against these threats and assaults. She’s caught in that vicious cycle of waiting on a man to save her from another man.
This is rape culture on steroids. And it really saddens me. I hate that not only do young women have to deal with the insidious, perpetual presence of rape culture in their day to day lives (whether they realize it or not), but now they get to experience it tenfold in a book that was marketed without trigger warnings or mention of the degree of violence and sexual assault it contains.