This was the last book I finished in 2016! It came in through the library just in time for me to breeze through it.
The book picks up right where An Ember in the Ashes left off, with Elias and Laia fleeing Serra. They are on a mission to get to the prison of Kauf and free Laia's brother, who knows the mysteries of Serric steel that could held the repressed races and classes of the Martial Empire throw off their oppressors. Meanwhile, Helen, as the new Emperor's Blood Shrike, is put in charge of the Black Guard and ordered to hunt Elias down for public execution, or her family will pay the price.
I don't think that this book was quite as breathtaking as its predecessor, though it doesn't quite fall prey to Second Book Syndrome. A lot of this is because Elias and Laia, despite starting the book together, end up separated for a large portion of it, and so the chemistry between them that is so intriguing is, obviously, not there, because they're not together.
What I really did like here was the way that Keenan's reintroduction was handled. His plot is developed and his role in the Elias-Laia-Keenan love triangle is made so that it's not just a love triangle for a love triangle's sake; there's actually a compelling plot point behind it, which I absolutely adore. It's so refreshing to see a love triangle that exists for a reason other than "Oh no I don't know which drooling boy to chooooooose!!!!" This was something that really bothered me for a lot of the book, but how it was tied up really made up for it and showed that Tahir has a firm grasp of what's going on with that particular story thread. I also liked Helen's plot. While I hated that her chapters tore me away from Elias and Laia, the way she struggles with her choices and lack thereof is very real, and I appreciate that. And the way the Soul Catcher plotline is integrated--at first, I had no idea where it was going and couldn't see the point, and was in agony over wanting Tahir to just move on. But in the end, I did like where it went, though I'm unsure of how it will make the third book in the series really possible.
Still, the strange time jumps continued in this book. We'd have a few chapters with Laia and Elias, and then there would be a "Two Weeks Earlier" sort of chapter with Helene. The notations of time changes are helpful, but they still disrupt the flow of the story overall. I also would have liked to see more of Helene's family. Ultimately, despite the peril they face, it's a bit hard to feel much for them because we just don't know that much about them. Even Livvy, her nicer sister, isn't truly seen enough to be a catalyst in our emotions, though she clearly is a focal point for Helen's own feelings. Finally, while I liked the inclusion of the Soul Catcher's story line because I love that sort of trope (escorts to the other side FTW, people literally tied to their jobs FTW, disgraced spirits trying to make amends FTW) it did feel sort of senseless for much of the book. The obvious path with Elias' injury was not taken, and while that's nice in one way, it also would have been nice for it to take that route--it would have been neat and tidy and tied Helene even more closely to Elias' cause while forcing her to still be Blood Shrike. I liked it but I still wonder what on earth Tahir is planning on doing with it, and I'm not totally convinced it will work for future books.
So, yes, I liked it! But some of the issues from the first book persisted here, some of the magical chemistry between Laia and Elias was lost due to their separation, and while I liked the things Tahir introduced as their own elements, I'm not convinced they fit properly into the story as a whole. I guess we'll have to see when the other books eventually come out.
3.5 stars out of 5.