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.
This is not a happy review, you guys. Not at all.
When you’ve been anticipating a book for months, when you’ve been chanting the countdown to its release, hell, when you’ve pre-ordered it a lifetime ago, you have certain expectations from the book. And seriously, people. Look at the cover. The synopsis. A brutal YA with a roman-esque setting, with everything from a slave girl fighting for her brother to the most unlikely of love stories, this book was just set up to be a hit with its audience. So what went wrong?
For starters, hats off to the author for the world that she has built in AEITA. Not only is it lush and intense, it is also something that can be defined as “realistic.” I felt the pain of the characters from this world, felt their fury, felt their helplessness. But I also felt the motivation of the Masks and their military attitude and their blind loyalty to the Empire. And that was spectacular. To be completely immersed in a book is one thing, but to dread everything that would happen to its characters (especially when I wasn’t too impressed by them) is a completely different story. The Ember world is brutal and unforgiving. It is pretty much a nightmare to be living in and I think that is what the author wanted to convey. So on the world-building, I have no complains. I could have not asked for anything better.
My major problem lies in the plot. Having read the book a few days ago, having slept on it and given myself the time and space to thoroughly think about it, I have recognised my major issue about AEITA to be the plot itself. Keeping the world in all its brutality and uniqueness aside, I wouldn’t say that too much happened in the book. The book charts roughly a month and a half, if I’m not mistaken, and literally nothing happens. Sure, Elias and Laia’s lives take a complete one eighty but apart from that, I wouldn’t say anything substantial, with respect to the outside world, happened. And since there are just two POVs (Elias and Laia’s) really, all we could see was how their world was affected. And that sucks because AEITA is a fantasy and I want to be able to know what’s happening in the world around them too.
Some reviewers have also spoken about rape being used as a plot device and you’ll get no denial from me. Rape has been used to move the plot along too many times and as a reader, I didn’t appreciate that at all. But, keeping in mind that the world the book is based in is not ours, I’m willing to let this pass. The author has tried her best to remain faithful in every aspect of the book’s world, and if rape was such an undeniable part of that society, then she has done nothing but show it as it was. Again, not a very pleasant thing to read but I think that in order to understand the atmosphere of the book and the plight of the characters in it, a reader needs to accept certain things about the book the way they are.
The writing was what really took it off for me. Had AEITA been written by anyone less talented in storytelling than Sabaa Tahir, I may not even have read the book in its entirety. Not only was the writing descriptive and evoking imagery at every turn, it felt like the writing of an author who has honed her craft. Absolutely spell-binding, coming from a debutante. If nothing else, then read the book only because Sabaa Tahir is amazingly eloquent when she wants to be and mysteriously eluding when she wants to keep a secret. And needless to say, AEITA has a lot of secrets.
The reason I haven’t talked about the characters in the non-spoilers review at all is because A) I don’t trust myself not to give away something huge and B) Even though I was not very impressed by the book, I didn’t want to completely discourage people from reading the book.
Let’s just cut to the chase. I didn’t like Elias and Laia together. There was no spark, no chemistry, nothing that even makes me think that these two will ever have true love between them. Not only did I feel that their romance was a mere plot device (which itself was a fail, because there really was no romance yet) I also didn’t quite understand what Elias saw in Laia. She’s a strong, resilient girl that I loved, but what made her stand apart to Elias? Why would he go against the Commandant and risk his life more than once for a slave girl? I do feel like Elias would have “fallen” for any girl in her place. So. No spark there AT ALL. Needless to say, I’m not getting onboard the Laia and Elias ship. EVER.
But you know a ship I might be shipping? Laia and Keenan. Keenan I absolutely loved. He was confused and scared and concerned for this complete stranger girl that he had an urge to protect. And he didn’t have to show any outward concerns. Certain reactions that he had that Laia caught were enough to show how hard and fast he fell for her. I’d go so far as to say that Keenan was a completely different person by the end of the book. Far removed from the arrogant prick that he was in the beginning, I just ended up feeling sorry for him by the end because he’d fallen in love with Laia and NOPE NOT HAPPENING BUDDY BACK AWAY SLOWLY.
Helene was another character I’d like to have seen more of. She was mysterious and unapologetic and strong and unfailingly faithful. I wish I could say that she would have been great with Elias but nope. I honestly don’t think highly enough about Elias to wish him a happy ending with Helene. While he was cowardly and whiny, Helene was courageous and a fighter. My heart was breaking for her at the end and gah. WHY DOES ALWAYS HAPPEN TO MY FAVOURITE CHARACTERS WHY WHY WHY.
All in all, read it for the writing, is all. Nothing more. The world, certain characters are just cherries on the cake.