Author: Sabaa Tahir
Format: Kindle, MOBI
Genre: fantasy, romance, jinn, empire, revolution
US Publisher: Razorbill, 2015
Trigger warning: Everpresent threat of sexual violence; abuse; torture; slavery
Within a Rome-esque Empire, a people called the Scholars are occupied by the Martials and their elite fighting unit called the Masks. (I sort of imagined a Roman Jerusalem, like in the time of Christ and Emperor Tiberius.) Laia, one of our narrator-heroes, joins the Resistance working against Martial rule after her grandparents are slaughtered and her brother is imprisoned for keeping a sketchbook of Martial weaponsmithing secrets. These Martial weapons are so superior, they changed the outcome of the war that ended with Martial rule over the Scholars. Her parents and eldest sister had died years before, as part of a Resistance purge led by the steely, evil Commodant, a woman of unparalleled cruelty and severity.
The Commodant is the mother of our other narrator-hero, Elias. He’s a senior Skull when we meet him, about to become a full-fledged Mask. And he’s also about to desert. Abandoned by his mother at birth and raised in a warm band of nomads, he is forced at the age of six to come to Briarcliff to train by the mysterious immortal Augurs, who play a long game involving the futures of empires. When Elias and Laia meet, that long game of fate starts to come into focus. At first they are working separately against the Empire for their own reasons, but soon their rebellions converge.
Okay, so I have an apparently unpopular opinion, but I’m not exactly sure I liked the book all that much. It was *okay*, but I had the following issues:
1) The plot. I wasn’t impressed with the story (see especially the proper noun races). I don’t feel like I understood the world I was stranded in, and I got the sense it was sort of loosely thrown together. I mention above that I connected it to what I know of Roman-occupied Jerusalem, and I don’t feel like there’s much originality there.
2) The characters. When the action at the end of the book was unfolding, I knew I hadn’t engaged with the main characters because I wasn’t nervous at all. The characters I liked most are Izzi and Cook, and they’re simply there to push the narrative. I didn’t find Laia and Elisa compelling, and that saddens me because I *love* the idea of them.
3) The writing. Some of the descriptive writing was spot on, but there was enough awkward phrasing that I feel like overall it was hit-and-miss.
That said, I’m going to give the sequel a shot. If reading Sarah J. Maas’ early works have taught me anything, a kind of disappointing first book can lead into an amazing series.
What’s your opinion? Am I completely wrong? What are your reasons for loving/liking/feeling underwhelmed by the book?