I didn't fall in love with this book.
I know, I know! This is possibly everyone's favorite Young Adult book. It is dark and edgy and will appeal to fans of both The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones! (said somewhere, probably, because every damn fantasy book currently gets compared as such). And it is in such a unique setting! And it doesn't fall for traps like love triangles! And.. And.. And..
Ok look, I didn't hate this book. Not at all. Which is really quite amazing because I should hate this book.
The unique world I kept hearing about is the most simplistic Roman empire ever. The rulers are called Marshals. The sea people are Mariners. And the oppressed people who are no longer allowed to read because at one time they knew too much are the Scholars. I assume in the next book we will meet the forest people called Arbors and perhaps some mountain Cliffsmen. The Marshals are obviously a military people who rule through fear (five hundred years of, wait for it, Marshall law). Their best weapons against the Scholars are near invincible fighters called Masks who seem like they should be rare and memorable except for the fact that a damn school cranks them out in mass every year.
The majority of the plot involves a completely contrived 'trial,' a four part event that will decide the next king. It is over the top, full of awkward qualifications and rules designed to make it fit into a story, and frankly kind of dumb. Only four people enter, and they are all from the most recent class of Masks. (Because even one year of experience outside of a confined school would age them too much or something). At least there is an explanation for the randomness of the trials themselves but they still may be the dumbest way to pick a king outside of strange women lying in ponds distributing swords. If I wasn't listening to this book rather than reading it I may have just skimmed the actual trials.
Add on some minor annoyances such as the Scholar's Resistance seeming to have about fifty people total (really everything about the setting is too small in scale). And they are all too willing to meet in one place (split up you idiots!) and the knowledge that this land both speaks English and writes in it (and tattoos family mottos with it). One might think there was nothing about this book I enjoyed. And this isn't true at all. In fact, I am interested enough that I fully intend to read the next book. Let me explain.
Despite my complaints this is a fairly smooth story with a couple of interesting characters. Laia, a Scholar girl who deliberately enters slavery in an attempt to free her brother, stands out. She is full of doubt, living in hell, and positive she will fail. But her courage, and eventually her intelligence, prove her courage even to her doubting self. The seemingly unrealistic expectations the resistance have of her become clear in time.
The other protagonist, a Marshal Mask in training named Elias, is less interesting but has a great supporting cast. His relationship with best friend/possible love interest Helena is often entertaining even as it infuriates; but at least his stupid mistakes in this department are typicality mistakes such as not listening. And his mother is the highlight of the book; a scheming women in power where such a thing is rare who exudes pure evil in a way that is rarely seen anymore (I'm choosing to ignore the attempt to humanize her toward the end of the book because to hell with that).
And it is the strength of these characters and the realization that now that the stupid trials are over the plot can actually go somewhere that have given me hope for the future. Yes, I am going to read the next book in the series. I am going in cautiously, and if I so much as sniff a repeat of the trials plotline (Catching Fire I am looking at you) I am gone. So while I didn't fall in love with this book, I do understand its appeal.
Somewhat anyway. Having a four person trial is still a stupid way to choose a King.