Let me first start off by saying this is the book that’s solidified my love of Sabaa Tahir and her ruthless writing. I don’t think I’ve even read an author as brutal as she is with her characters. And I’ve read some “evil” authors in my time.
Elias and Laia are running for their lives. After the events of the Fourth Trial, Martial soldiers hunt the two fugitives as they flee the city of Serra and undertake a perilous journey through the heart of the Empire.
Laia is determined to break into Kauf—the Empire’s most secure and dangerous prison—to save her brother, who is the key to the Scholars’ survival. And Elias is determined to help Laia succeed, even if it means giving up his last chance at freedom.
But dark forces, human and otherworldly, work against Laia and Elias. The pair must fight every step of the way to outsmart their enemies: the bloodthirsty Emperor Marcus, the merciless Commandant, the sadistic Warden of Kauf, and, most heartbreaking of all, Helene—Elias’s former friend and the Empire’s newest Blood Shrike.
Bound to Marcus’s will, Helene faces a torturous mission of her own—one that might destroy her: find the traitor Elias Veturius and the Scholar slave who helped him escape…and kill them both.
I really thought this was going to be just another typical fantasy series from another YA author, but I was extremely wrong and I want to personally apologize to Sabaa Tahir for doubting her ability to write some really good fantasy. This series is everything I’m looking for in a good book. It’s got a lot of action, but also some political/royal/court intrigue, some romance (not a huge fan of this, but I’m also not going to hate a book for it), and settings that you can immerse yourself and imagine yourself in. Sabaa delivers and she delivers it so damn well.
First off, I’m a huge fan of Helene and her POV in this novel really brings an extra piece to the story. I think that Laia and Elias’s perspectives were great, but to have Helene; a person dedicated to her job and succeeding, but still grappling with the fact her best friend (and personal crush) is now someone she has to murder. Wow. This is what I’ve come here for. Helene’s story was definitely one of the reasons why I kept reading this book because the addition of this perspective truly made the story way more dynamic.
But it wasn’t the only reason. I think Sabaa Tahir’s ability to get “real” with her story and not only give her characters depth, but also struggle is what made me keep reading. Nothing came easy for her characters and that’s what I find intriguing. For example, this book is a prison break story. I absolutely love these kinds of stories with elaborate prison systems and trials for the characters to endure before finally finding freedom. There was a ruthless warden and enslaved subordinates planning their coup. If the subject wasn’t so serious, I would be delighted like a pig in mud with how that story played out.
And the reveal at the end, OMG! I feel like there’s definitely the reveal of magic in this book and I’m loving the villain. I know I should hate them, but there’s something intriguing about the Nightbringer from the first book that is explored a lot more in this book. I don’t want to spoil it more than I already have, but bringing in the magical elements and the intrigue around the Commandant was one of my favorite parts of this book.
The ending, though. WOW. I think that was the most surprising part (and reminded me a little bit of a movie that had a similar premise? Maybe?) Seriously, this entire book has impressed me so much. There was so much action, but also a lot of growth and heart from the characters. It doesn’t leave you on a cliffhanger, but it will definitely make you pine for the next book. And I can’t wait to read the next one because I need answers. I’m satisfied until then.