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.
Set in a world that draws heavily from Ancient Rome, the social structure is fascinating to see. On one hand, we have the oppressive and brutal Martials, and on the other, the Scholars. There is a whole lot of history not covered in this book about how the Scholars came to be oppressed, and I found that to be quite disappointing, considering the impact it has on the plot and characters, especially as the differences between them are almost portrayed as though they’re separate races, as opposed to different levels of society.
The violence in the story is very well done, big action scenes are not necessary to show how brutal and nasty the world can be, and when they do come along, they’re handled well. The references to sexual violence/rape sometimes felt a bit flippant, almost like they were stuck in there to tick off a box, and didn’t add a lot to the story for where they were inserted. Certainly they gave great insight to the characters involved, it was just at the wrong time in the story. I also think that it came up far more often than it should have in a structure that is allegedly disciplined beyond belief.
I did find the characters quite difficult to connect with on a personal level. As much as I enjoyed many of them (Helene in particular), I don’t care about them. I also found the budding romance between Laia and Elias to be really difficult to swallow, especially when both are presented with, and react better to, more than suitable alternatives. It would just be really nice to see two characters thrown together like this not end up together. Boys and girls CAN be close friends without any romantic elements!
I found this to be a really interesting book, not necessarily for the plot, which I did like, but more for how it’s all put together. The bits I like the most don’t get anywhere near as much narrative time as I’d like, but perhaps will be addressed in the sequel, and a lot of the time it feels like a whole pile of plot devices have been pulled out at random points. But, I did enjoy it, and I do recommend it. I just think expectations need to be tempered a little.