When Masks murder Laia’s grandparents and take her brother Darin, she decides to request help from the Resistance to free her brother from prison. The Resistance, which her mother and father used to lead before they were killed, pledges her assistance only if she takes risks for them, as a slave and secret spy in the Commandant’s household, the leader of the training academy of Masks, Blackcliff. The Commandant has a cruel history with her slaves, and Laia would be going into certain torture…
Elias is a Mask, albeit a reluctant one. He was taken from his adopted Tribal family and put back into his Gens, his familial house, and sent to Blackcliff to be a Mask like his mother, the Commandant. She holds no love for her son, and forces him, despite his nature, to be a killer. When the Emperor suddenly dies, four candidates from the class of graduating Masks are chosen as potentials, Elias among them. He must compete against his best friend Helene Aquila, cruel Marcus, and Marcus’s twin to become the Emperor because the alternate fate is likely death.
Though each are on a different quest, Laia and Elias share a journey that has all the potential to change an Empire while thousands of lives hang in the balance.
Obvious spoilers for book 2 below…
With Elias hunted as the Empire’s top fugitive, he and Laia are desperately trying to make their way out of the Blackcliff compound and the city of Serra to save her brother Darin, rumored as imprisoned in harsh Kauf, far to the north. Before they can escape, they are purposefully trapped on their way out of the city by the Commandant, Elias’s mother. She wounds Elias with a deadly poison but lets them go. Laia is left to find her way to the nearest city before Elias dies from his blackouts and seizures, while Elias dreams of strange things that are real and important to both his past and his future.
Meanwhile, Emperor Marcus sends Helene, his Blood Shrike, to kill Elias, but only after severe abuse and torture, making a deal with her father in exchange for influence, allegiance, and insurance of Helene’s compliance. And if Helene does not bring back Elias and kill him? Her family will die.
When Helene comes after Elias and Laia and their new allies, they manage to escape but not without a price. Despite Elias’s illness, he decides to journey on alone hoping that he can rescue Darin before Elias succumbs to poison. As their situation and survival grows more desperate, the Commandant enacts her genocide against the Scholars, Helene edges closer to her goal and her potential doom, while the noose of the Nightbringer is well-laid and waiting for the tiniest misstep from Laia and Elias.
A feverish debut that had a lot of marketing and hype, so I was looking forward to this read. I found it an unusual adventure with an intriguing societal system. There is a very deep extreme between hated and liked characters, very few mediocre characters. I automatically liked Elias much more than I liked Laia (but I am not sure how much of not liking Laia was feeling how little I knew her and knew of her). Perhaps I related more to Elias because I could see he was reluctant but forced into terrible deeds? I loved Izzi and the mystery of the Cook and also loved the contrast of Helene and how she grows throughout the series.
While this was a solid read, it just didn’t grip me as much as I had expected. Maybe I am very character-driven and that’s where I experienced a disconnect, but I also very much hated the love triangles and was questioning Laia’s mental sensibility about a certain guy the whole story until I was finally proven right (book 2, but see, still not spoilering!). I liked the first book, but I think book 2 is a typical book 2 in that it is a journey (we’re walking, we’re walking…) and nothing much is resolved but just a set up for book 3. Disappointing but not unheard of.
A solid read and a shoo-in for fantasy fans who are looking for adventure, romance, and an a-typical story. I must confess it took me a lot longer than usual to read the second book. Make of that what you will.
Notes: Graphic violence and sexual circumstances.