So I wrote this review last month and forgot to post it. Wow, go me.
Anyway, the MOST important thing that I have to say here is:
I met the author!
The book was lovely, the event was lovely, Sabaa was lovely, everything was lovely. <3
Laia is a slave.
Elias is a soldier.
Neither is free.
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
Something to know is that this book was advertised as a standalone. BUT. There is a definite possibility (if the publishers cooperate) that this will be a series. I wish I knew this before reading the book because that ending was a little too open for a standalone, in my opinion. But as series starter, it's totally fine.
My favorite thing about this book is the worldbuilding. It's kind of a mixture of ancient Rome and the ancient middle east, I think, so two thumbs up for not just Western-Europe-Fantasy! I'm always game for some non-medieval-Western-Fantasy. And the depth of this world was just marvelous. I felt totally comfortable in it and such a part of it. I absolutely adore when you can FEEL the world around you - smells and tastes and sounds and everything.
My other favorite thing was the sheer amount of twists in the plot. I literally had NO IDEA what was coming next - anything could happen. Up until the ending, I was entirely unaware of where things could go. This goes for the love triangle/rhombus too... but more on that later.
As I said, the ending kinda disappointed me, but now that I know it's a series, I'm totally cool with it.
My other favorite thing (this whole book is a favorite thing) about this book were the characters. It is told in a dual POV - on one side we have the slave Laia and on the other, the soldier Elias - and their voices were adequately different and understandable.
I found Laia quite a unique character. In these sorts of YA adventures, it's customary to have a heroine who learns to stand up for herself and is badass and heroic and lovely. Which is fine. But seriously, if I was in their shoes, I'd probably curl up in a ball and die. (Seriously, would you survive even the first minute of the Hunger Games? Don't kid yourself. And as much as we appreciate Tris' ability to sacrifice herself over and over again in Divergent - would you?) But Laia is scared. She's feels she has to do something, and save her brother, but she's too scared for her own life to make the right move most of the time.
And frankly, I'm like that too. If a situation comes up where it's asked of me to risk my life to save someone I love - would I? It's a freaky thought, and I hope I'd never have to face it. I wouldn't doubt my desire to save the person - just like Laia so wants to be brave - but I might hesitate just too long and then they're dead. Laia resonated with me so much because I feel like I'd be the exact same in the situations.
Elias is also interesting, but he's more of your traditional YA hero. He has a mindset different from those around him, and is trying to change the way society works. He wants to make the bloody traditions of the soldiers' castle less brutal - and not only less brutal, but completely Good and Ethical. I found his drastically differing opinion a bit of a struggle to believe, since he grew up among these warmongers, so it seems odd that he wouldn't grow up with at least a bit of acceptance of "the way things are." He gets mad at his friend Helene for agreeing with the twisted mindset of their cohorts but - Helene has been trained to think that way. It's her life. It's the only thing she knows.
Where did Elias get this idea that killing people is All Bad, when he grew up in a place that raises people to be killing machines? I get that there's an innate aversion that we are born with when it comes to killing other humans, but it's not all Nature, right? There's Nurture too.
Anyway, that's a minor complaint. Elias is lovely.
Not only did the main characters have requisite depth, all the other surrounding characters had it too. I LOVE THIS. This is authorly skill.
Talking about characters.... the villain was OH SO CREEPY. Those villains that just have 0% concern for human life just freak me out, and she was one of them. But she wasn't shallow and "just evil" either. She had a killer backstory (no pun intended) and I love it.
Let's talk love rhombus, because - yup - there is one.
Somehow, I don't mind it, though. Usually, when there's a love triangle/square/whatever, I ship people almost immediately and stick with the same ship for the rest of the story. (And, not to brag or anything, but my ships rarely sink. So I will continue with this method.)
BUT. In Ember, I have no extreme-OTP-ohmygawdthey'reperfecttogether. Nope. I still haven't figured out who's best for whom. I LOVE THIS. Since I'm so used to being able to predict who'll end up with whom, I love this unpredictability.
At first I was mad because the ending kinda resolved the rhombus but not really, because two people were left in the corners without a pairing. (Is that a spoiler? I hope not.) But as a series I'm excited to see where this goes. Thumbs up to logical writing out of the love stories and legitimate deep characters which just made it real. There wasn't a "bad boy" vs "nice boy" choice which IS SO REFRESHING. I realized I wasn't rooting for one over the other. I MYSELF WAS CONFLICTED AS MUCH AS THE CHARACTERS WERE. Good job, Sabaa.
Highly recommended. Go read it now. NOW.
Have you read Ember? What did you think? And what's your opinion on badass heroines? Where do you think the line can be drawn between fearless/awesome and realistic?