Some of the initial impressions from EITA were that it was a young-adult dystopian story set in a fantasy world that resembles Roman times, but with the focus on the Martial training academy called Blackcliff, where young promising cadets are trained to one day replace the Emperor, whose dynasty is foreseen to perish. As you can imagine, things can get brutal at such a place and the Commandant is the worst; a sadist who inflicts pain on even the main characters. The Commandant’s own son, Elias, despises her.
I found Elias to be a complex and interesting character, running away from the misdeeds of his past, and his blood, to find freedom from a tyranny he’s part of, in his capacity as a Martial ‘Mask’. He sees his female friend Helene as a companion always forcing him to fit in and obey, but he sees more sides to her as the story goes on and they are tested. It could be that time spent with tribal elders has made Elias sympathetic to the plight of people.
The poverty and slavery class are the Scholars, ruled by the Martials. Daughter of Scholars, Laia, seeks to save her brother Darin from Martial prison and along the way fights doubts about her inadequacy, fear of Martial punishment, and how she feels about the reputation of her courageous parents in order to get information. She doesn’t know that she’ll have to deal with male attention, torture, and a more daring side of her nature. Her point of view was a unique contrast to Elias’, seeing Martial rule from a slave’s perspective. Though consequences could be dire, she was watched less than Elias and had the opportunity to learn more.
Just as the characters are complex and with depth, so the story is. There are events occurring outside the perspective of the characters, such as foretelling Augurs, supernatural demons, an Emperor riding south, and Laia’s older brother’s attempts at defying the Martials. I liked when more of the background to these was given, in conversational exchanges, and the reader develops a connected picture of the world. For me, it meant I got more from the story than what could have been, in another story, a narrow viewpoint.
The emotions among the main characters came off a bit strong about three-quarters through, until the end, and I found the story a touch too tragic for my taste. Perhaps it was inevitable after the suppressed emotional feelings. Elias came across as a rebel and so I would have liked him to have fought more against the Augurs and Trials than succumb amid everything else that happens. Elias didn’t entertain any further thoughts of escape after the beginning and I found the nature and conclusion of the Fourth Trial, about three-quarters through, to be disappointing. I think I understand that author Sabaa Tahir’s intention was to show him to be just as powerless as Laia.
EITA was immersive, capturing my attention every chapter, and it was what I felt to be an accomplishment in storytelling. I’d go as far to say that it’s the best young adult dystopian story I’ve read in years. This review was long, and there was much to think about.