The four young mages who learned to work as a team in Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic series, then went their separate ways and took on students of their own in the Circle Opens set, come together again. Noble-born Sandrilene has been content to draw the income from her estates in the empire of Namorn as an absentee landlord, while leaving their day-to-day management in the capable hands of a cousin, but Sandry has another cousin in Namorn: the Empress Berenene, who is becoming increasingly insistent that her young kinswoman take up residence in her ancestral home. Sandry agrees to visit for the summer, but Berenene intends the visit to be permanent; when Sandry's foster sisters and brother accompany her, Berenene soon recognizes that they too would be assets to the Empire. And the Empress is not used to having her will disobeyed.
The four central characters of this series continue to grow and mature, as they have throughout the previous eight books. They're eighteen in this one, so this volume is aimed at older readers than the previous entries; the question of Sandry's marriage is a central theme, and Daja and Briar both carry on romances of their own. For the most part, though, the intrigues of the imperial court take center stage.
An excellent book, as usual for Tamora Pierce. I'm not sure if this is meant to be a stand-alone novel or the first of another four-book set; I suspect the latter, since this one (like the first volumes of the previous two sets) was chiefly about Sandry, leaving the others' entry to adulthood for subsequent volumes. Lots of fun either way, though.
Originally posted at MySpace on 12/24/05.