Tamora Pierce’s The Will of the Empress is set a few years after the Circle Opens quartet; it is a standalone novel, originally titled The Circle Reforged, which should give those familiar with the world an idea of its subject matter.
Briefly, four young craft-mages were brought together at roughly ten years of age to be fostered and trained; they created magical ties between their minds as well as family ones. At about fourteen years of age, three of the four left to travel extensively with their teachers; the fourth, Sandry, stayed home to care for her great-uncle, the ruler of the area they live, who’d recently had a heart attack. As The Will of the Empress opens, the other three are returning, to find that they’re no longer as close as they were and that they are reluctant to re-open their mental ties.
(Actually, they come back over a year and a half, which makes the beginning oddly choppy. I think there are internal chronology reasons for it, but it feels somewhat like killing time until they all hit eighteen.)
Sandry is a noblewoman and has been receiving income from her estates in Namorn ever since she was orphaned. The Empress has long been pressuring Duke Vedris, Sandry’s great-uncle, to have Sandry visit Namorn; Sandry found out about the pressure and determined to go to Namorn to put a stop to it. At Duke Vedris’s request, the other three mages (Briar, Daja, and Tris) agree to accompany Sandry as additional protection. Since the Empress is determined to keep Sandry in the country by any means necessary, this turns out to be a very good thing.
One of those “any means necessary” is a forced marriage; in Namorn, it is still permitted to kidnap a woman and hold her until she escapes, is rescued, or signs a marriage contract giving up her rights. Pierce stated, at the last Boskone, that her publisher required her to soften this practice from its historical analogue by removing mentions of violence, particularly sexual violence. There are small worldbuilding tweaks to make this more plausible on the first look: physical abuse within marriage can apparently be protested to the local lord, and (following the Empress’s lead, who needed heirs but not a spouse who would try and grab power) extramartial childbearing seems socially permitted. However, the attitude towards women shown by kidnappers is such that it’s hard to imagine why they wouldn’t resort to violence, so to me, the lack of violence ended up feeling like the elephant in the corner. This isn’t Pierce’s fault, but it is unfortunate.
I had one other problem with the book, which may just be oversensitivity: Daja discovers that she is a lesbian. The discovery and relationship are handled well, but the combination of butch + smith mage + lesbian bugs me, particularly the “smith mage” part. Probably oversensitive, like I said. (For those familiar with prior books, Rosethorn is mentioned as bisexual, and Lark and Rosethorn are lovers, which is news but not surprising.)
Otherwise, this is just what I want in a Circle-verse book: time with the characters I’m fond of, craft magic, common sense, and a dollop of social commentary. I’m a little sad that the next book will be “how Briar acquired PTSD,” but only because I really wanted “Tris goes to Lightsbridge,” which has been pushed back; but either way, it will still be a buy-on-sight book.