Holy wow! I predict that this book is going to be huge. I generally scoff at the comparisons in book blurbs and shy away from making those comparisons myself, but I'm going to just come out and say that this book is like Red Rising lite and has the potential to become the next The Hunger Games. Let me explain. Like in Red Rising, there's a lot of brutality, social unrest due to a huge divide between the ruling class and the working class, and a hero who has to become what he hates in order to make things better. He has to make horrible decisions that affect his friends and has to decide what the greater good really is. Like The Hunger Games, there's a ton of buzz surrounding this book and it's already been optioned for a movie (which has the potential to be phenomenal, btw). It's a YA book, but it has huge crossover potential and adults will enjoy this as well.
I was hooked from page one. Right from the beginning, these characters jump right off the page. We don't have a kick-ass heroine. Rather, we have Laia, a heroine who is scared and cowardly and only wants to slink by under the notice of the powers-that-be. She is not a revolutionary. She is a regular girl who only wants to live. But in order for her brother to live, she is thrust into a situation that she is ill prepared for and leaves her in a constant state of fear. Opposite her, we have Elias. He is a part of the Martial Empire that has oppressed Laia's people and subjected them to horrible brutality. Elias recognizes this tyranny and only wants a way out - to be free - but instead finds himself put in an impossible situation. Does he stay and fight for a better future for his country, or does he flee and find personal freedom?
The situations these characters find themselves in are exciting and frightening and heartbreaking. This is a bleak and distressing world filled with brutality. The society is severe and unforgiving. The Scholars are oppressed by the Empire and are punished for the smallest infractions. The Martials are unforgiving with even their own people and punish rule-breaking in savage ways. The Commandant is a psychopath and some of the other soldiers are sadistic lunatics as well. The author really did a fantastic job of evoking that sense of hopelessness and danger that these characters were in and I feared for them every second.
Elias's storyline deals more with his personal struggles. He disagrees with the Empire but his best friend is a loyal soldier. He desperately wants to find a way to be free of the Empire while still being loyal to his friend.
As for romance, there are a couple of love triangles. Normally, I don't really care for love triangles, but these are handled well and add to the development of these characters rather than seeming an overused trope. They serve to highlight the changes in the characters between what they were and what they are becoming through their experiences.
The plot is exciting and fast-moving and this book was nearly impossible to put down. There were lots of action scenes interspersed with quieter scenes full of subterfuge. There was political maneuvering, deception, prophecy and a hint of the supernatural. There is suspense and fear and heartbreak. There are very strong characters, both main and supporting, who make real decisions and deal with real consequences. This book is fantastic. It's labeled as Young Adult, but there is huge crossover appeal here. While there is nothing overly graphic, the brutality is very real and adults will appreciate the setting and plot just as much as teens will. I am hoping and praying that there will be a sequel. Hear that Penguin? We want a sequel!
This book is highly recommended!
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.