The books are set in Ricalan, a cold, inhospitable country which has complicated internal politics and is currently experiencing a foreign invasion. Sierra, who can draw on other people's pain and convert it into magical energy, has just escaped enslavement by a powerful mage, but has nowhere to go — the mage wants her back for use as a private reservoir of power, her fellow Ricalanis hate magic and won't shelter her, and the foreign invaders see her as threat. She runs across a band led by a fugitive prince whose potential claim to the throne tangles her up in Ricalani domestic politics as well, but also provides her with a few allies. On top of it all, she has to figure out how to actually control her magic, which just about everyone thinks is inherently evil and which there is nobody to teach her about.
The three books are:
- Winter Be My Shield (2012)
- Black Sun Light My Way (2013)
- North Star Guide Me Home (2014)
This series provides examples of:
- Antimagical Faction: The whole nation of Ricalan, where the trilogy is set, is generally against all kinds of magic, believing it to be inherently evil. People with minor abilities are tolerated if they wear a magic suppressor, and very limited magic is tolerated for the purpose of detecting such people and constructing the suppressors, but that's it. However, Ricalan is currently being invaded by a country which routinely uses magic in war, causing the Ricalani monarch to hypocritically ally with an Evil Sorcerer to counter that advantage. The protagonist, who is potentially even more powerful, later provides a non-evil alternative once people have reconsidered their hostility enough to trust her.
- The Apprentice: Kell, an extremely powerful and sadistic Blood-Mage, has an apprentice, Rasten. However, the relationship isn't exactly good — despite being a very powerful mage in his own right, Rasten is basically a slave to Kell, having been broken into obedience through torture.
- An Arm and a Leg: Isidro loses the functioning of one arm to torture. In a culture that values strength and pulling your weight, it's a big psychological issue for him as well as a physical one.
- Arranged Marriage: Mira, daughter of the leader of the Wolf Clan, has an arranged marriage to Duke Osebian, a relative of the semi-foreign King. She's sour about it, and her clan is taking no chances of that sourness being upgraded to disobedience — she gets drugged and shipped off involuntarily just in case she kicks up a fuss. It still doesn't work, though.
- Bad Powers, Good People: The protagonist's whole situation, really. Sierra recharges her magic from other people's pain, but she didn't ask for it, can't stop it, and doesn't exploit it. It isn't even unpleasant for the people she's drawing from, because converting their pain into magic means that they aren't in pain any more. However, the whole "feeds on pain" angle naturally leads people to conclude that she's evil (and people in her country already hate and fear ordinary magic as it is).
- Disabled Means Helpless: Discussed with relation to Isidro's crippled arm. He emphatically does not want to be useless or a burden, and doesn't think he is, but believes that a lot of other people will now see him that way. In particular, he resents the fussing of Rhia, the medic — Isidro acknowledges that she means well, but still thinks she treats him like a dim-witted child.
- Emotion Eater: Sympaths are mages who can draw on human experiences and sensations to fuel magic. Typically, they draw on positive things — the more pleasure they have, the more magic they generate. However, it's possible for Sympaths who are exposed to large amounts of pain to "switch" to drawing on that instead — and Sierra is such a person. Naturally, the fact that her magic feeds on pain does not make her already magic-averse fellow citizens like her, but she's not a bad person.
- Exotic Extended Marriage: In Ricalani culture, group marriages are normal, with multiple men and multiple women all being considered a single household. Characters from other cultures consider this decidedly odd, but as certain Love Triangles arise, the idea starts to look more practical.
- Evil Sorcerer: The Big(gest) Bad, Kell, is a very evil and very powerful mage. The evilness and the power are linked — he draws magic from inflicting pain (not that he needs the extra encouragement).
- Evil Versus Evil: As of the start of the series, an invasion of Ricalan by imperialist slavers is being held at bay almost single-handedly by a very powerful Evil Sorcerer with his own agenda. A decisive victory for either one would be bad news.
- Handicapped Badass: Isidro only has one functioning arm, but is still more competent than a lot of other characters with two. However, his disability isn't ignored or dismissed — it really is a large issue for him, and working out how to succeed despite it is a big thing.
- The Hedonist: Sympaths in the Akharian Empire are encouraged and expected to pursue lives of pleasure, since they charge their magic from their emotional environment. However, the mechanism which turns an environment of pleasure into magic is soured if anyone involved isn't genuinely happy, so the hedonism in question has to be a generous, non-selfish kind — pleasure at the expense of others will defeat the purpose.
- Heir-In-Law: Confusion exists between a culture where this can happen and one where it can't. Mira is the daughter of a Ricalani clan chief, and a Mesentreian noble thinks that bargaining with the clan to marry her is the same thing as securing eventual rulership for himself. Ricalani clans don't actually work like that, and all he'd get out of the marriage is Mira herself, but unfortunately for Mira, her clan is quite happy to take advantage of his misunderstanding and strike a deal.
- How Do I Shot Web?: Sympaths almost always have this, if they even try. They have the ability to generate vast amounts of magic from their surroundings, but seldom know how to do anything notable with it, and are more often used as accumulators of magic for other mages. Sierra was originally intended to be this (much against her will), but becomes very dangerous when she escapes and starts learning how to use the magic she gathers.
- It's All About Me: Brekan is completely self-centred, but thinks that he's self-sacrificing, long-suffering, and unappreciated. He goes on about his efforts on behalf of other people, but his motivation is never just "it would make them happy" — it's about how they'll be grateful and he'll seem important. If anyone points out that his efforts have had negative, stupid repercussions for the group, his only response is bitterness that he didn't get the outcome he wanted and that people are "as usual" all against him for no reason.
- Magic Is Evil: Many people in Ricalan believe this, and the country bans any significant use of magic. This is a problem for Sierra, the protagonist, because she's a Ricalani with very powerful magic (which, for added trouble, happens to feed on pain). Many characters hate and distrust her for it, though some of them warm up to her as they realise she's not actually evil (and as they realise that Ricalan's lack of home-grown mages is leaving it open to abuse by foreign mages).
- Person of Mass Destruction: Sierra, even towards the beginning. She may be a fugitive, but she's in no danger of ever losing any fights with ordinary opponents, being able to annihilate them with no real effort. The danger to her comes from two things: firstly, she still has to eat and sleep, and can't be perpetually on her guard; and secondly, she's being pursued by people who have had much more training than her, even if they lack the raw power.
- Mana: The main limitation on a mage's power is not how much magic they can handle but how much they can gather in. Their abilities in this regard are basically determined by birth. The lowest grade of mage never has more than a small amount of magic, and can't do anything about that fact. Higher mages, however, can use rituals which gather magic to themselves, allowing them to perform greater feats provided they've had a chance to charge themselves first. And then there are Sympaths like Sierra, who sweep up vast amounts of magic from the senses and emotions of people around them automatically. It was the villain's plan to use Sierra as a magic accumulator, surrounding her with pain that fed her magic and then taking that magic for himself. Her escape from him starts the plot.
- Rightful King Returns: Cam had been named heir to the throne of Ricalan, but he never really wanted it and his succession was interrupted by a usurper. He is conflicted as to whether to do anything about it — he doesn't want the throne, but the people who currently rule won't leave him alone and are generally bad for the country.
- Ritual Magic: Rituals are one of the ways mages can gather magic to themselves for later use (and the ability to use such rituals distinguishes "real" mages from mere Sensitives, who have magical ability but can't gather enough raw power to actually do things). Blood-Mages are a kind of ritual user who specialise in sourcing magic from pain, and it was one of these who tried to enslave Sierra (who can do that naturally) as a personal power supply.
- The Unapologetic: Dremman, warleader of the Wolf Clan, is unwilling to even feign remorse for betraying Sierra, even after he has clearly failed and now has to work with Sierra again. Drugging her and selling her to a torturer was apparently a perfectly reasonable course of action under the circumstances, and why should he act like he did anything wrong?