I'm a librarian who loves anime, manga, and reading a wide variety of genres.
I started reading this during my vacation, figuring that it was different enough from my other vacation reads that I wouldn't get everything confused. One review I read described it as being like George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, except set in a fantasy Middle Eastern world. Unfortunately, although some of the magic and political intrigue was interesting, it turned out to be a bit of a slog. I couldn't connect with the characters and had trouble caring about what was going on around them.
The politics and character relationships were complicated. Years ago, when Emperor Tahal was in power, everything was better. When he died, someone (maybe Tahal himself? I can't remember) arranged for all of Tahal's sons to be killed by Eyul, the Emperor's Knife, in order to avoid future power struggles. The only ones spared were Beyon, who became the next emperor, and Sarmin, who was locked up for the rest of his life, in case he was ever needed (fantastic idea, right?). In the book's present, Beyon has become a respected but sometimes brutal emperor. By his command, anyone found to have been patterned (mysterious pattern marks spontaneously appeared on their skin) is put to death. However, there are rumors that Beyon himself has the pattern marks and may eventually become a Carrier, a dead shell used as a tool by the Pattern Master.
I was a little confused about who was trying to accomplish what, and how. I think Nessaket, Beyon's mother, was doing whatever she had to in order to remain the most powerful woman in the palace, but she also potentially cared for her sons...maybe. Tuvaini was definitely trying to overthrow Beyon, put himself in power, and claim Nessaket as his wife (he seemed to both lust after her and hate her). Eyul wanted to serve the empire but wasn't sure whose orders would best help him do that. Sarmin would have done anything to protect his brother. Mesema, Sarmin's future bride, just wanted to figure out what was going on, learn what the patterns meant, and stay alive. I think I followed all that well enough, but I couldn't always keep the assassination attempts and reasons behind them straight.
It probably didn't help that there wasn't a single character I really cared about. There were some characters I liked more than others, and yet it didn't upset me at all when a couple of those characters died (don't worry, no spoilers). Of them all, Sarmin probably appealed to me the most, but having been locked alone in a room for nearly his entire life meant he wasn't the most comfortable of characters. When he first began exploring his magical abilities, I wasn't sure if what he was dealing with was actually magic or if he was as insane as Tuvaini said he was. After all, his advisers were faces he saw in the walls of his room. And he had almost no experience interacting with others. I thought his excitement at the thought of eventually meeting Mesema was nice and kind of sweet, until I realized that he viewed her as something like a present, someone that would belong to him alone.
I wish I could have liked Eyul, Amalya, and Mesema more than I did. Eyul, the world-weary assassin, was fascinating at first. However, he spent much of his time away from the palace, and I had trouble remembering why anything he did was important to the overall story. Some of the reasons why he disappointed me were also tied into my disappointment with Amalya.
Almost across the board, women in this world had little freedom and power. Even Nessaket, the most powerful woman in the palace, couldn't leave the palace grounds. She was powerful because she was the emperor's mother and previous emperor's wife, and, if Tuvaini got his way and became the next emperor, she hoped to stay powerful by becoming his lover. There was no way for her to be powerful that did not involve some sort of connection to a more powerful man.
The only women who had anything resembling power and freedom all their own were mages, and there were only two female mages in the entire book: Amalya and Mura. Mura was mentioned so rarely I had to look up her name just to include it in this review. She was the one female character Tuvaini met that he didn't view in terms of her sexual attractiveness to him, primarily because he was uncomfortable with the knowledge that a wind elemental was trapped inside her. Amalya was a much more prominent character than Mura, but unfortunately she didn't amount to much more. She used her fire elemental's magic a little, but it was mostly Eyul's skills that kept them safe. Amalya's greatest skill, it seemed, was cooking, and her primary purpose in the story was to give Eyul someone to fall in love with. She had so much potential, and it was all wasted.
I wanted to like Mesema more than I did, but she kept doing things that annoyed me. She supposedly loved Banreh, a man from her tribe who escorted her to her new home in the Cerani Empire, and yet she frequently insulted him. Years ago, he'd shattered one of his legs and could no longer ride well – not good in a culture that prizes riding skills. Mesema sometimes called him Lame Banreh. At one point, she said “You are barely more than a woman yourself...” (13.5%). Later, she thought of him as a “thrall” not once (41.3%), but twice (45.9%). There was also occasionally some pity in the mix.
And I was supposed to believe she really loved him? Had they interacted more and had Mesema done some groveling, then maybe, but instead I was left feeling like she just latched onto whoever was uppermost in her thoughts. When she wanted to go home, she loved Banreh best. When she was in the thick of things at the palace, Beyon began to attract her. Even though she was there when, earlier, Beyon threatened to kill Banreh.
It's possible that this series gets better, but I doubt I'll ever read the next book. I didn't like the characters enough to risk another slog.
(Original review, with read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)