I actually Double Cannonballed this sonnuvabitch a little less than a month ago, that’s how behind I am in reviews. But I’m glad I did it with this book, which is one I picked up due to curiosity, and ended up really enjoying despite a near certainty that I wouldn’t.
There were so many red flags here. It’s YA. It’s buzzy. The male and female protagonists were obviously meant to fall in love against insurmountable odds. The setup of the worldbuilding indicated a tired hodgepodge of Defeat the Evil Empire Cliches. And the obstacles in the way of both the heroine, who has to infiltrate high society in a manner that directly risks her life, and the hero, who is a direct representation of all that is wrong in the world, all seemed to have been done before. Within the first chapter or so, I felt I could predict all the story beats.
But despite all these warning signs, instead of ending up with another story that browbeats the same plot and themes over and over again, I found myself enthralled by the story, which took those stale concepts and breathed new life into them. Sabaa Tahir’s world also made an immediate impression. It’s clearly built deeper than a lot of YA fantasy I’ve read and that real thought and historical research has gone into its creation, and how people behaved in similar times. An interview I read with the author upon finishing the book illuminated my puzzling reaction to this book. Despite its similarity to all manner of books and movies, everything from the Hunger Games trilogy to the more recent Winner’s Curse and Red Rising, she actually started writing it long before those things were published, and certainly before they became popular. She also did a butt ton of research into the history of the Roman Empire, as it was the model for the civilization she was creating. This included issues of class and violence and sex, and the ways cultures clashed and the treatment of slaves.
And all of that shows in the book, it really does. It’s certainly not the most brilliant piece of literature ever written, but it was incredibly hard to put down, and I ended up caring about the characters a whole lot. I also did not predict the plot by the end. The elements of magic she brings in are ones I haven’t really seen before, and the farther the book got away from its opening chapters, the more it set itself apart in my mind as It’s Own Thing. (The opening chapters are the weakest parts, for sure, mostly because of all the baggage you as a reader will bring to it, but also because it seems so generic at first.)
Two things, specifically in reaction to reviews I have seen: Slight spoilers? Maybe? But just for the premise, and it’s probably stuff you’d guess anyway. First, there is no instalove in this book. If you’re seeing it here, I think you’re probably reacting to all the other YA books with instalove in them rather than this one specifically. Neither Laia nor Elias ever states that they love the other person. There is certainly an instant physical attraction between them, but I wasn’t bothered by it, and it’s not central to the plot. Both of them have much more pressing things on their minds, and people they care about much more than they care about each other in this book. There is definitely a foundation laid for a future emotional relationship, however.
And second, I’d heard there were some rape issues, but I have no idea what exactly those people might be reacting to. When I think “rape issues” in a book, I think problematic and casual treatment of that subject. Everything in this was appropriate to its thematic subject matter and historical-type setting. Slavery, and what happened to slaves, was a historical reality in Ancient Rome, and I thought the author handled it very well. To ignore the reality of what slaves faced would do the story and the historical realities both a disservice. There was the threat of rape in the book, but no character we meet is actually raped.
Anyway, I think if you like YA and/or fantasy, this is worth checking out. It’s one of the better YA books I’ve read in the past four or five years, and even though the writing was not perfect, I’m excited that there will be a sequel next year.