This young adult fantasy series begins with very common elements: a brutal regime that was established after one empire conquered another and made them their slaves; spirited, rebellious young adults from each of the two groups who come together in an unexpected alliance to change the future; and of course the inevitable romantic entanglement.
Laia is from the underclass of the former Scholar Empire, and as the saga begins, her brother Darin is taken into custody by the Martial Empire. Laia is desperate to get Darin back, and so she allies herself with the secret underground Resistance. They promise her they will help release Darin if she will go into the heart of the Martial power base and spy for them. She is terrified of going, but more so of losing Darin, and so she agrees.
In alternate chapters, we learn the story of Elias, one of the students in the elite Blackcliff Military Academy of the Martial Empire. Elias’s estranged mother is the Commandant of the Academy, and is totally and one-dimensionally psychotic (although there is a reason for this we learn eventually). Elias is nothing like his mother – he cares for the weak and the sick and the powerless – but only in secret of course; such softness would earn him severe punishment at the school.
It is clear to the reader that Elias and Laia are destined to meet and to be attracted to each other. It doesn’t take long, since Laia has been inserted by the Resistance into the Commandant’s own household as her personal slave. (There are frequent openings for the job since the lifespan of the Commandant’s slaves is extremely short.)
There are also a number of supernatural creatures around, and in another common trope for this genre, they ally themselves with the bad guys, helping them become even more evil in an unholy alliance to gain unlimited power. But there are also supernatural beings who are perhaps not so bad, called the Augurs, who want to see both Laia and Elias succeed. Each finds out from these Augurs that it is foretold their destiny is to be “an ember in the ashes.” As one Augur says to Elias:
“You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.”
These Augurs, who form the religious authority of the Military Empire, arrange a series of trials at Blackcliff to see who will be the next Emperor. In the running are Elias, his best friend Helene, and the Very Evil Marcus and his only-slightly-less-evil twin, Zacharias. The trials are absurd in ways it would be spoilery to describe, but they are probably the weakest part of the plot.
In this book, similarly to the stories of Greek and Roman gods, humans are just playing out battles that they only think they can affect, but the gods have already determined their paths. We humans not in the story, however, will have to read on through the series to see just what those paths will be. And there is a love quadrangle to keep us further in suspense.
Discussion: There is a lot in this story that will seem predictable and familiar. So what got this particular book off to such a successful start? It would have to be the characters of Laia and Elias. Their character types are somewhat familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less appealing. Elias is strong and warrior-like on the outside, but is hiding a good heart; Laia is loyal to her family and friends, terrified at first, but more courageous as time goes on, and tougher than she knows.
This book is not as good as other books in this category, and yet, its very readable. Once again, we perhaps have the M&M’s phenomenon here, in which you know what you have is not as good as other sustenance of a higher quality, but you can’t stop yourself from consuming it rapidly.
Published by RazorBill, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, a Penguin Random House Company, 2015