I think that this second book in the series that began with An Ember in the Ashes is better than the first book, and the first book has been wildly popular. This second is definitely not a standalone, however.
Note: Spoilers for Book One, but none for this book.
In Book One, we met Laia, a young woman determined to rescue her brother Darin from the prisons of the Martial Empire. Laia and her family are Scholars, enemies of the Martials. Laia manages to enlist the help of an elite Martial soldier named Elias Venturis. Elias, though skilled in killing, has somehow remained good on the inside, and is sickened by what the Empire asks of him. In particular, he loathes the sadistic commandant, who happens to be his biological mother.
As Book One ends, one of the worst of the Martials, Marcus, has become Emperor, and Helene, long the best friend of Elias, has become (not by choice) Marcus’s chief assassin. Elias decided to flee the Empire, and he and Laia are on the run, racing to try and rescue Darin from the notoriously bad and impenetrable prison to which he has been taken.
This book is almost all action from the moment it begins – taking up right where the first book ended, and adding even more violence and brutality to the tale.
The focus shifts back and forth among Laia, Elias, and Helene. All of them struggle with competing loyalties, and accommodation to their roles in the changed Empire. The females are intelligent and brave, at least up to a point, but there is no doubt they are the heroes of the saga. [Note if I said “heroines” it would imply they were only sidekicks to male heroes. So one has to choose the “masculine” form of the word to indicate their prominence in the story.]
There is also a time limit to something that will happen in this book, adding a lot of tension and energy to the story, and making one want to race through to the climax.
Discussion: There is more depth to this book than just the usual YA tropes, of which there are plenty. But there is also much sadness, loss, pain, suffering, and a sensitivity to feelings of loneliness and horror. There is guilt, loyalty, and love, and triangles, albeit with fuzzy edges.
The books raise questions we continue to face in real life: how, in the face of tyranny and threatened death, can we stand up for justice, and at what cost to ourselves and our families? Is it wrong to take the “easy” way out? How do we live with ourselves for the bad choices we have made?
There is also an ongoing theme of the fear of hurting those we love, and the advice not to lock oneself away from others because of it: “What point is there in being human if you don’t let yourself feel anything?”
And perhaps most importantly for these fallible characters, there is the admonition not to let failure defeat them:
“Failure doesn’t define you. It’s what you do after you fail that determines whether you are a leader or a waste of perfect good air.”
In the Acknowledgments, the author thanks some of her fellow YA fantasy authors for their friendship and chats, and interestingly, I can see the influence of some of them in this work. When one of the characters speaks of love, it particularly reminds me of Renée Ahdieh:
“You are my temple. You are my priest. You are my prayer. You are my release.”
Evaluation: It isn’t often that a “book two” of a series is better than the first book, but I think it is true in this case. I didn’t always like the choices made by the characters, but couldn’t help liking them or hating them for who they were, and really enjoying the story.
Published by Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016