The night Laia's family is killed and her brother is taken by the government enforcers is one that plunges her into despair and makes her determined to rescue the one relative she has left. She approaches the Resistence, an underground organization that is working for the Scholars, the lowest strata in society, hoping to bring change. Laia, desperate to get her brother Darin out of prison, agrees to pose as a slave in order to spy on a fearsome woman called the Commandant, who rules the Blackcliff Academy with an iron fist and an unforgiving demeanor. Lana is supposed to find out what she can to report back to the Resistence, but she undergoes merciless torture at the Commandant's hands and realizes she's in way over her head, despite the concern of Resistence worker, Keenan. Meanwhile...
There's Elias, son of the Commandant and recent graduate of the program at the Blackcliff Academy. He's now a full-fledged Mask, a member of the enforcement group that is known to be ruthless killers. But Elias is different; he only wants to escape, and he's even made plans to do so, until he finds he's been chosen to compete in Trials to determine who will become the next Emperor. His fate seemingly out of his hands, Elias must make decisions that will hopefully lead him away from his life as a killer, but all of this serves to bring him in touch with the slave girl, Laia.
We follow the stories of both Elias and Laia in alternating chapters, both told in first person. Laia starts off as immature, driven only by her need not to lose her final family member. She's willing to do whatever it takes to rescue Darin, not having any clue what that might include. Over the course of the novel, it's almost possible to physically see Laia maturing and to feel her emotions widen as she faces betrayal, friendship, and determination; it's one of my favorite things about this novel. True growth is really rare in a protagonist, but Laia achieves it in spades, learning how to keep not only herself safe, but to have others' backs as well.
Elias, hated by his mother but the hope of his House, is obviously different than his peers at Blackcliff, most likely because he was not initially brought up by his mother. Elias dislikes killing and he hates all the games that must be played; basically he's very confused about his future and unsure of how he can change anything. Surrounded by a lot of evil, including two of the other Aspirants in the Trials to be Emperor, Elias has always turned to his best friend, Helene, the only female at the Academy. But now even that's in jeopardy, as he must examine his own feelings for this girl. Elias wants to keep everyone safe and wants his freedom in equal measures, and he's conflicted about it all.
I loved this book! I read it on the recommendation of a friend who said she couldn't put it down, and she was absolutely correct. I would become equally caught up in both stories, holding my breath for Laia when she faced the Commandant and my heart torn when Elias tried to decide what would be the best course. There's some magic involved, and a group of guiding "counselors" called Augurs who seem to be trying to guide the entire Emperor selection process. Mostly, however, there are real characters who react in unexpected ways and feel emotions that cut to the bone. Violent at times, this book is definitely riveting, and I'm eagerly awaiting the second installment because I HAVE to know what's going to happen next. A wonderful debut YA novel!