When I first started reading this, I was a bit worried that it felt derivative of other YA novels. While it was a very different set up, something initially reminded me of Marie Lu’s Legend, though it quickly became its own separate thing. I think it may have been that both alternate between the voice of a young woman and a young man, and in both, the woman has an older brother. Both also deal with resistance fighters and an established empire, though the gender is flipped here as far as which character belongs to which force.
As the story progressed, it took a different turn, included magical elements, and involved balancing quite a few mystical forces along side the politics of empire and rebellion – I soon became engrossed in the story. In fact, I literally only paused to write this review so I could read the second novel and not entangle the two stories – I hope this is one of the series that maintains its quality or even improves rather than one that takes a sharp nose dive so fingers crossed!
Centuries ago, the Martial Empire conquered the Scholar Empire (yes, not the most creative terms used for nation building), and since then the Scholars have been enslaved and treated as less than human. While the Martials allowed other conquered nations to create treaties with them and maintain more freedom, the Scholars have been systematically oppressed for the past five hundred years. Laia, her brother Darin and her grandparents are Scholars and have been scrambling by, but after Darin’s actions catch the attention of the Empire, Laia’s life completely changes. The only way she sees to save her remaining family is to ask the Resistance for help, leading her to spying on the Commandant of the Empire’s school that trains their elite forces, the Masks.
Elias will graduate as a Mask in a day, and is planning his escape. He spent the first six years of his life removed from the Empire, and even though he is the top student in his class, he hates the Empire and its violence. However, the Augurs have taken a special interest in him, and send a representative to speak to him before his planned escape. Something big is coming, and while they won’t turn him in if he decides to go forward with his escape, he has a choice to make. As it turns out, after five hundred years under one family dynasty’s rule, the Augurs are going to fulfill an old prophecy, and hold the Trials for the next Emperor. Elias and his best friend Helene are two of the four candidates selected, and Elias chooses to stay and compete.
Due to the trials, the graduated students stay at Blackcliff, leading to interactions between Laia and Elias. Both face tough decisions and grapple with figuring out who who they really are, as both have family legacies and duties that weigh heavy on them. The actions of the Resistance and the Augurs also show that there is a lot of information that the characters are missing as a much larger game is being played, with ever shifting goals and loyalties.
I really enjoyed this novel though as I said, it took me a few chapters to truly get into it. However, given that it is the first in the series, I will hold off on making recommendations on whether or not to read it until I see if the series is able to maintain its quality.