4 out of 5 stars.
I received an ARC of this work.
This was a really neat read for a couple of reasons. Number one: the setting is unusual. Dystopians tend to take place in either an advanced technological setting, or the ruins of a once-technological society. It is rare to get one alluding back to early Rome/ Sparta/ Greece. It is not explicit (no mention is made of togas) but between the jacket blurb, the frequent use of slaves, and the militaristic empire bent on conquering everything, I can see where they are coming from.
Number two: it is a mix of science fiction and fantasy. They have some futuristic technology (awesome, unbreakable steel) with fantasy elements, like Jinn and other creatures, as well as some mind-reading abilities. The science fiction element is very subtle, but I still found it present enough to mention it. I love it when authors skillfully combine genres and that has definitely happened here.
Number three: while it does have the game/ contest elements of books like The Hunger Games, it does not overshadow the rest of the plot. The contest is an element to drive the story forward, but not the entire reason for the story itself. If was a skillful addition of elements that have a tendency to completely overtake stories.
Both of the main characters, Laia and Elias, are strong but complicated people living in surprisingly similar situations. Laia is a member of the conquered people (the Scholars) whose family has been slaughtered by the empire. She and her brother managed to survive, but he has now been taken, accused of being a member of the Scholar rebellion.
Elias is the son of the head of a prestigious school for elite soldiers (Masks) who is about to graduate and take his place as a member of the armed forces of the empire, when he is one of four students chosen to compete to be the next Emperor.
Laia is sent to Elias’ school as a spy for the rebellion. If she can give them enough information on the contest, they will free her brother. She is placed as a slave to Elias’ mother, who is brutal and vicious, but she has to survive if she ever wants to see her brother alive. Elias must survive a ruthless contest that pits him against his friends, and hope that what he must do will not rob him of his soul. They are both trapped in intolerable roles within a violent society and must try to survive without being monsters themselves.
The writing is skillful and the plot has enough action to really drag you through the pages. The world is well-constructed and interesting and the romance is sweet and not heavy-handed. I found myself relating to the characters easily and really caring about what happened to them. I think this is going to be a very popular novel, and I am prepared to be very angry if a second is not published (especially since they left the story unfinished).