Laia wakes one night to find her brother sneaking in with a sketchbook full of pictures of Martial weapons--which Scholars like them are forbidden to know of. Minutes later, the Martials show up and kill Laia's grandparents and take her brother prisoner; Laia runs for her life, hoping to find the Scholar Resistance and convince them to free her brother from the Martial prison on the basis that it was resistance members who sold him out, and that they are the children of the Lioness, the resistance's former leader. Meanwhile Elias, a Martial training to be a Mask, one of the Martial Empire's fiercest warriors, plans to desert his post the day after his graduation from the hellish school known as Blackcliff, where his mother reigns supreme as Commandant and seems to want to kill him, along with pretty much everyone else. But Elias' plans are shattered when the Augurs, immortal "people" with magic that can read minds and tell the future, proclaim that they are going to select the next Emperor from among four of the newest graduates--and that one of the four is Elias. Trapped in the Trials, he can't escape if he wants to live, but by staying he risks becoming everything he hates. And when Laia is sent to Blackcliff to spy on the Commandant for the resistance, their lives start to intersect and intertwine, and they might just be able to bring down the forces aligned against them.
I really liked this book. I liked both Laia and Elias as main characters and narrators, and I liked the setting that Tahir lay out. I guess I can see the "ancient Rome" influence that the blurb totes, but it's not really a strong influence. The fighters in this aren't slaves locked to arena combat, and the arena-style combat that happens isn't really like gladiator combat at all. This has stronger influences of the Middle East, with creatures like jinn and efrits that lurk in the shadows and come calling at the most inopportune times. There are a lot of "school" fantasies out there, but this one doesn't follow the normal route of them in that this school is one that the students, and pretty much everyone else, are desperate to escape. The book also brings up issues like racism, and how Scholars are considered inferior by the Martials, confined to one quarter of the city (like a ghetto), enslaved, and sexually assaulted without most people actually caring about it. There's also a lot of violence in this book (I'd say it's definitely not for sensitive readers) and considerations of what that violence means, and what it can turn people into, and how good people can also be bad people in different circumstances, and so on.
This isn't high fantasy; the fantasy element does get more pronounced as the story goes on, with the appearance of Augurs, supernatural creatures, and unusual abilities, but the emphasis is on the gritty elements of death and survival rather than on the fantastical ones. The main characters, for example, don't possess any unusual abilities (at least not yet) and instead have to use their wits, strength, and relationships in order to pull themselves through. There's a sense that not everyone is who they present themselves as, and the "chosen ones," though that term is never really used, might in fact not be so chosen. I think there are a lot of interesting dynamics swirling around in the background here, and they come together to make a well-woven story--for the most part.
There are, of course, some flaws. Tahir seems focused on having not a love triangle, but a love quadrangle, or possibly a love pentagon, which are most definitely even worse than the triangles. There are some logic flaws, such as why would Blackcliff leave a trail leading directly into the school unguarded, even if it is annoying to use, when they guard every other entrance? And the trail can't be that annoying to use because two teenage girls use it several times without too much difficultly. What was up with Laia in that chapter after the third trial? Why was she even there? I don't know why the Augers would have done that. And the timelines can be difficult to follow, too; the chapters jump back and forth between Laia and Elias narrating, but that means that sometimes more time passes in one than in the other, and the narrative has to jump backward in order to catch up instead of just progressing. I found myself going, "Wait, what's going on with Elias/Laia at this point?" several times because the chapters don't line up as neatly as they should; having a few in a row from one narrator or the other wouldn't have hurt the book at all, and would have made it easier to follow.
Still, the flaws don't detract that much from the overall reading experience, and overall this a great book. I'm definitely looking forward to reading the sequel.
4 stars out of 5.