This is a world where the Scholar people have been almost irradicated over the past 500 years, and what’s left of their people are suffering under severe oppression. They aren’t allowed to read, knowledge of how to forge weapons is expressly forbidden, and they can be sold into slavery on a whim, they have no rights to speak of. Most of the Empire’s population is totally fine with this and considers it their right as they conquered the land and therefore own it utterly. The Empire performs raids on their homes if they suspect any deviance from the law. They seize property, burn down their houses, and execute whoever they want without any consequences. This is exactly what happens in the very beginning of the book to one of the main characters, Laia. Her brother has forbidden knowledge of the forges used by the Empire, and they send a Mask to take his sketch book and kill his family. A Mask is a specially trained soldier, all of them have liquid metal masks that bond with their faces – they’re known to be ruthless. Laia’s grandparents were both killed and her brother was hauled off into custody, assumed to be part of the Scholar Rebellion.
This leaves Laia completely alone at 17 years old trying to figure out what she’s going to do now. If she’s found by the Empire it could mean death or slavery, so she seeks out the remnants of the Rebellion, a faction that was once a potent anti-Empire force, but has since taken a fall and it’s struggling along. They agree to help her get her brother out of jail, but in return they want her to spy on one of the most powerful people in the nation, the Commandant at the military school known as Black Cliff. The school that trains the Masks.
At Black Cliff “students” (who I think of more as slaves) are put through an insanely grueling 15 years of training starting at the age of 6. Stepping out of line in the most minuscule of ways can result in a whipping, and trying to run away can lead to their public execution, witnessed by the 3,000 other students attending the school as a warning.
The other POV, Elias, is a Black Cliff student training to be a Mask, and he’s also the son of the Commandant. His mother doesn’t take it easy on him just because he’s her son, it’s quite the opposite. She hates him, she calls him her biggest and only mistake in life, and regrets not killing him as a child. The Emperor is dying and a new one has to be chosen because he has no male heir. There’s a trial to be had at the school to determine the successor, and it’s a bit like Hunger Games where it pits the kids against each other and only the strong survive, with the two losers to be executed at the end even if they survive the trial itself. The winner will become the Emperor, and the second place student will be his second in command, a title known as the Blood Shriek.
These two POV’s intersect when Laia poses as a slave to serve the Commandant – and yes, it’s a romance substory. It’s actually a pretty complex love story since both POV’s are romantically interested in a couple other people, so it’s not just a love triangle, it’s like a love pentagon. As is typical with me, this was my least favorite part of the story.
I think my favorite part of the book was the world building. Wraiths, Jins, Ghouls, Sand Ifrits are all part of the lore of the world, the legends are known by everyone, but not everyone believes in them. The two MC’s of this book are on the skeptical side of things, each having their own reasons for not believing in immortal beings that can read minds, or ghouls that prey on those in deep emotional pain. However, as the book goes on these are introduced one by one, and both of the MC’s have to deal with this revelation that the old creatures of myth are real and coming back.
After both of the characters go through several close calls and they were saved in the nick of time I felt like the story lacked an edge because I knew they were going to make it out whenever another dangerous situation would arise. This is a YA novel, so I wasn’t expecting a bunch of character deaths, but it did get a little tiresome to constantly see them in ‘danger’ and not really feel like they were actually in danger. Now, some pretty awful stuff does happen to Laia, she doesn’t make it through unscathed, and for a YA novel, the threat of rape was a little over abundant IMHO.
For all its flaws, I still found this to be a decently entertaining book, I listened to it on audio and I kept listening because damnit, I wanted to know what happened. I actually picked up the second book in the series as well and will get to it at some point. So, all in all, it’s not something I’m dropping everything else to read, but I do intend to continue on.
- dual povs
- oppressed society
- ghouls, jins, wraiths
- love pentagons
- darker stories
- Plot: 11/15
- Characters: 12/15
- World Building: 13/15
- Writing: 12/15
- Pacing: 11/15
- Originality: 11/15
- Personal Enjoyment: 7.5/10
Final Score: 77.5/100 = 3.8 stars, recommended for target audience