Innocent blood has been spilled in the name of the Emperor under the oppressive rule of the Martial Empire. Laia is a lowly scholar, living in the slums of an overcrowded city with her grandparents and her older brother Darin. Elias is one of the best students at the Empire’s finest military academy, but his life is anything but easy. Elias’ mother, the dreaded Commandant, makes his life at the academy a living hell. Unbeknownst to even his closest friends, Elias has been secretly plotting to end the tyranny his people enforce. When Laia’s brother Darin is arrested for treason, Laia vows to avenge him by teaming up with an untrustworthy group of rebels who are willing to risk her life in exchange for inside information straight from the academy. It is here that Laia and Elias’s paths cross and are forever entwined as a diabolical plot is revealed and a deadly game of chance ensues.
This book was better than I had expected. Initially, upon viewing the front cover, I thought this book would be an Arabian fantasy tale, which I was not interested in. The setting was actually inspired by Ancient Rome, which I was mildly obsessed with in high school. The fantastical elements of this story are based on genies, ifrits and other dessert-dwelling creatures of Arabian myth, but they were not the focus of the story and actually rarely made an appearance. I thought Laia was a perfect example of an “unwilling” heroine. She was honest in her fear and hesitation to make the sacrifices necessary to save her brother and I appreciated that because she was much more relatable, considering her circumstances. Elias was a more interesting character because he was so complex and conflicted about his life and the choices he’s made, sometimes against his will. This unwillingness in both characters brings them together in the best way because they can empathize with one another. I also really liked the way this book tackled issues relating to diversity and oppression, including slavery and a class-based social hierarchy. The pacing for me picked up near the middle of the novel, when Laia actually begins her spying for the rebel forces. The side characters played important parts in the story, but didn’t overshadow our main protagonists. The setting was beautiful and picturesque, despite the bloodshed and war-mongering going on. This book has the feel of “The Hunger Games” and “The Great Library” series by Rachel Caine, so I highly recommend this book to fans of those series.