But beneath the assassins’ caves, Ileni will discover a new place and a new purpose… and a new and dangerous love. She will struggle to keep her lost magic a secret while teaching it to her deadly students, and to find out what happened to the two tutors who preceded her. But what she discovers will change not only her future, but the future of her people, the assassins . . . and possibly the entire world. Quoted from Goodreads
First, Ileni is a strong main character. Everything she wanted and worked for is taken away, and instead of complaining or wallowing in self pity, she takes an assignment that she's almost certain will kill her, all because she wants her life to mean something, even if it's not the something she spent her life working towards. Sure, she's a little fatalistic at times, but in the beginning it makes her a little better at her job. Plus, despite her diminishing magic, she still struggles to teach and solve the mystery of who is killing sorcerers. She's smart, though she does make some stupid mistakes, and she never gives up, even when she doesn't seem to have anything left.
As for world building, it's a bit mixed. The story takes place in caves. All of it. So while that aspect of world building is intricate, gritty, and realistic, we don't get a ton about the rest of the Empire. This could have backfired horribly, but it works, because while the Empire is the big, ultimate threat of the story and behind all the assassin's work, it only plays a small part in this installment. With the way the next book is set up, I'm guessing it will expand that facet.
I loved the plot. It's a bit slow sounding on paper, half mystery, half survival/suspense---not the murders and secret missions you might expect of a book about assassins---but Leah Cypess's writing is addictive and she builds tension throughout. I loved the absolute lack of safety the book provides. Ileni is surrounded by killers, people who she knows has killed the two men who came before her for unknown reasons, and no one is safe. It's not just that there is a murderer on the loose, but everyone and anyone could decide to kill her for a myriad of different reasons. Plus, Ileni's magic is fading more and more as the book goes along, so as things get more dangerous, so does her ability to physically defend herself.
As for the romance, I absolutely adored it. It's light, not a main plot-line, but it's sweet and awkward and fully developed. First Ilena and Soren become friends . . . of sorts. She lets herself trust him, even though part of her knows she shouldn't, and he's just adorable awkward when it comes to relationships with girls, which is a striking contrast to his absolutely confidence in everything else. Plus, no love triangle. There could have been since Ilena's the only girl in a cave full of boys, but most of them pay little to no attention to that fact, which is pretty refreshing in YA.
Overall this is an excellent, suspenseful story, with fully fleshed characters and an intense setting. The writing is beautiful, and I adore the way Ileni grows and changes over the course of the book. I'll admit I did guess the murderer before Ileni does, but I didn't feel she was dim witted for not getting it sooner, and I didn't really see one aspect at the end coming at all, though it was perfectly set up. If you're a fan of fantasy, you really should pick up this book. I'm giving it a strong 4 stars and eagerly awaiting the second half of this duology.