Our local library automatically renews books, so I’ve had this 446 page AR 5.0 novel sitting on my night stand since October. I got the online version when I went overseas, and I even downloaded the audio book. Needless to say, I never opened it, in any form. And then four days ago, I did. I read the first page and then the second, and soon enough I knew that I would quickly be annoyed by my children needing food, and clean clothes and rides to school because, I was no longer present in the day-to-day functions of my life, I was in Serra hoping for happy endings and being really angry, like ready to contact the Muslim author during certain scenes, as I felt tears reminiscent of when Cedric Diggory was killed in book 4 of Harry Potter brimming. The book was amazing, and yes, my kids are fairly well cared for, but there are two more books in the series out, and the fourth one apparently in the works. I hope to read the series, but I have a feeling, this epic fantasy series will not be a happy read, it is dark, and violent, and definitely more suited for high school readers because of content then the AR level would suggest.
Told from two different characters ‘perspectives: Laia and Elias, the world of Serra has tastes of the Roman Empire, current political headlines, Middle Eastern names, subcontinent ideas and lots of action. Laia is a Scholar, an oppressed people who a half a millennium ago crumbled beneath the Martial invasion. Her parents led a resistance and were killed a long with a sister. She and her brother, Darin, are now raised by the grandparents: gentle people who heal others, keep their heads down, and don’t make waves. The story quickly advances with Martials raiding the family home and Masks, the elite warriors of the Martials, killing Laia’s grandparents and imprisoning Darin. Laia escapes by running, but hates herself for not staying and fighting for her brother, the only family she has left.
Elias on the other hand is a Martial soldier about to graduate as a Mask from Blackcliff Academy, a brutal (that’s putting it mildly) nearly all boy’s military school. Abandoned by his mother as a baby, Elias is contemplating running away from the school, as his soul and conscience can no longer be pushed aside to complete the acts he is expected to do. The complications abound, however, as the Commandant, is his mother, who wants nothing more than to see him dead, the penalty for desertion is death, but the penalty for most every infraction is a severe beating, and if death happens in the process, so be it.
The two characters come together as Laia reaches out to the Resistance to find help in rescuing her brother and in exchange is assigned to be the Commandant’s personal slave. As the Empire is on the cusp of change, a new emperor is to be selected from the top four of the current graduating class, Elias, is the top of his class. The four trials will leave one triumphant and the new leader, second place will be the Blood Shrike, the emperors blood bonded butcher, the others will be killed.
The trails are named: Courage, Cunning, Strength and Loyalty and are administered by immortal, mind reading, cave dwelling Augurs. The trails are vicious and cruel and evoke not only putting friends against friends, and test one’s fears, but they are amplified by creatures such as jinns, efrits, ghuls and wraiths.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The book is incredibly well written. The way the author builds her characters’ worlds is seamless and smooth. I didn’t get lost or confused, I never once felt bored by explanations or felt that something didn’t make sense, a feeling that makes fantasy stories cumbersome and daunting to me, and what I feared all those months looking at the book, too afraid to open it and dive in.
The action and characters are well developed. While the book is fast paced, I felt every character was given some nuance and depth. It really isn’t a good vs. evil story. Each character has more than one trait at any given time, and it makes them delightful to interact with and mull over. There are strong females and sprinkled in ethnic names like Sana, Illyas, Tariq, Afya Ara-Nur, Mazen, Zain, Zara. The subcontinent concept of Izzat, honor, is prominent among the Resistance and Scholars which is a nice bit of resonance in this fictional world as well. And the concept of jinns, and the stories about their role in the book, reads like Arab folklore.
The book has profanity, not a lot, but it is there, especially when talking about women. The violence is incredibly graphic, killings, beatings, brutality, whippings, suffering, and death are on nearly every page. The Martials are ruthless not only with those they occupy, but even amongst themselves: the students fight to their death, they lock their own children in cages without food so that only the strong of their society survive. But even worse is that many of the people outside of the ruling elite are taken as slaves, and thus women are seen as property and rape abounds. Rape by name is mentioned a lot, but it isn’t graphic, save one or two climactic points, if anything it is more disturbing because it is the norm and is accepted. Prostitutes are mentioned, again, nothing detailed, but mentioned that the boys at the academy visit the docks to see prostitutes. As Laia is being sold to a slave master, he considers placing her in the brothels rather than at the school. Laia is nearly raped by a student, and a simmulated rape saves her at another time, in both instances the higher ups dismiss that there is anything wrong with raping a slave and the winner of the third trial is even given a slave for the night. When the Masks kill Laia’s grandparents, one says he will rape Laia before he kills her. So it is very much a part of the culture of the book, but it isn’t defined, just the words are used, which means I think high school kids could handle it, because it is not celebrated or graphic, but younger than that will have too many questions that can’t be swept away easily given the environment of the book.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This book could work for a high school book club, because there is so much to talk about. It won’t work for middle school, and I will keep my daughter from reading it until she is in 9th or 10th grade probably, even though she has read Hunger Games and the Divergent series. Just want her a little older to handle all the rape references, in more mature way.
As for teaching or presenting this book, this series has a HUGE fandom, you can find everything on the book online and with little effort (maps, character lists, chat groups etc.).
The Author’s website: https://www.sabaatahir.com/
Teaching Books: https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?a=1&tid=42018&s=n
One of many book trailers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbvyCrkVT7M
Enjoy! Happy Reading!