It takes place in the fictional Empire of Durdane, modeled on Imperial China. At least, it was the Empire of Durdane up until a few hundred years ago when the territory north of the Great Pearl River was conquered and enslaved by the Exile barbarians from across the Juren Gap. The rest of the empire soon fell into civil war and broke up into the southern Despotates.
Ever since this Great Partition, the Despotates have been in a gradual, accelerating state of decay. The Exiles are in a constant state of tension with the Despotates, but both sides are too afraid of each other to actually wage war and accomplish anything. So most of the Despots are content to live in luxury and exploit their people for all their worth. The poor are getting poorer as the rich get richer. It is in the poorest, most primitive, southernmost village of Riversong, at the end of the Wing River and the very edge of civilization, where we meet the protagonist Lale.
After a series of unfortunate events ends with Lale leaving Riversong, and even more unfortunate events that end with her one friend and caretaker on the road being killed, she has the fortune to run into Makina Seval, the ruler of the despotate Tamurin. Makina takes Lale under her wing as her own daughter and raises the young girl, educating her at Makina's own academy. Talented, canny, and intelligent, Lale proves her worth enough to be let into Makina's inner circle and she becomes a spy for the woman, eventually tasked with a dangerous but worthy goal: assassinating the usurper Sun King, Terem Rethai.
Posing as an actress, Lale positions herself as a suitable bride to Terem, who is infatuated with the girl - but some things are wrong. Terem, Lale finds, is hardly a ruthless dictator. The Exiles are threatening to march. Makina gets more and more unhinged, dealing with dark magics and terrifying spirits to accomplish her goals.
As Lale finds her loyalties torn between her adoptive mother and her new lover, her choices will define the fate of an entire empire.
This novel provides examples of:
- Amazon Brigade - Mother's merry band of spies and assassins at Three Sisters are all-female, to better take advantage of men's affections and biases.
- As You Know: We are told the history of Durdane via a history class' Lecture as Exposition at Serene Repose.
- Battle Butler: Lale and her sisters, being servants to Mother, are trained in a variety of household skills as well as murder and assassination.
- Becoming the Mask: Lale worries this will happen as she spends more and more time with Terem, and it eventually does.
- Broken Pedestal:
- Conflicting Loyalty: In the end, Lale is torn between her loyalty to her family and her love for Terem and his ambition. She chooses the latter.
- Constructed World: And just to prove it, compasses point South instead of North.
- Dark Action Girl: While Lale is hardly morally bankrupt, the Three Sisters spies act entirely in service to Mother, and will not hesitate to kill if necessary while carrying out their duties. Sometimes, killing is the duty.
- The Dragon: Tossi, to Makina, acting as her physical enforcer and closest confidant. Nilang was almost one, until it is revealed she was The Mole. (Dragon to who? What did they do under this person?)
- Driven to Suicide: Lale's only plan to escape torture by the wraiths.
- Enigmatic Minion: Nilang, who is often kept away from the girls at Three Sisters and whose lessons are strange and mystical. She is seen as aloof and often disinterested.
- Everybody's Dead, Dave: News of the revolt and massive death toll in Istana, including Lale's best friends at the theater company.
- Evil Chancellor: Terem's advisor, Halis Geray, or so the girls are taught; Nilang is a straight example, to Makina Seval, having encouraged her madness for her own reasons.
- Evil Overlord: Who for once is not the Big Bad, Ardavan. It's Makina Seval, who plots to overthrow the Sun King and use the power of his country to reunite with the Exiles and conquer the rest of the continent.
- Fate Worse than Death: The girls are told this is what will happen if they break Mother's trust and blab her secrets. Lale watches it happen to one of her friends and fears it happening to herself.
- Genre Savvy: Lale, to a degree, being an actress in tales very much like the novel.
- HeelFace Turn: Lale, who turns from a dedicated servant of Mother to Terem's closest confidant, lover, and eventually, savior of his kingdom.
- Kill Em All: The body count by the end is none too small.
- Literal Genie: The girls believe that Nilang's curse will activate if they so much as think about betraying Mother. Due to the Exact Words used it will only activate if they tell Mother's secrets- which leaves plenty of other ways the girls could betray Mother.
- Loving a Shadow: Terem falls in love with who Lale appears to be. He true motives and personality are hidden from him until much later.
- Luke, I Am Your Father: Albeit after the revealed relative's death. Lale had a twin sister, who was married to Terem. She didn't find out until she was an adult, and by then, her sister had long been killed.
- Machiavelli Was Wrong: Lale wonders why Mother feels it necessary to bind her beloved daughters to secrecy with Nilang's wraiths...
- Magically Binding Contract: The girls at Three Sisters all make a contract to not reveal any of Mother's secrets, under penalty of extreme pain and eventually death.
- Mercy Kill: Lale to Adrine, after Adrine ends up being tortured by Nilang's wraiths.
- The Mole: Lale, for Makina. Also Nilang, who sees an opportunity in Lale to escape from Makina's grasp and end her insanity.
- Moses in the Bulrushes: Lale was found as a young girl in a basket, and while she was raised by the village of Riversong, her origin did little to endear her to the others.
- Neutral Female: Mother during Lale's final showdown with Tossi, until she picks up a ceramic platter and conks Lale on the head with it.
- Never Trust a Title: The girls are trained as spies, not assassins with very few exceptions. Lale at least spends her time in court as a spy, which is the only job Mother ever asked her to do. Averted, because although Lale only assassinates one person (and does so without orders from Mother or Terem), the man she assassinates is the leader of a soon-to-be-invading army and his death alone prevents a massive war.
- Nothing Can Save Us Now: Lale's attitude after betraying Mother.
- Nothing Can Stop Us Now!: Makina Seval's attitude before Tossi prepares to kill Lale.
- The Power of Love: Averted and Lampshaded by Lale, who fruitlessly wonders if her love for Terem will protect her from Nilang's wraiths. It doesn't work that way.
- Regent for Life: The (intended) ultimate result of Makina Seval's plan - help the Exile's conquer Durdane, marry her daughter to the Emperor, dispose of said Emperor, and rule the Empire "from behind the dais."
- Replacement Goldfish: The initial reason for Terem's attraction to Lale. Exploited by Mother, who knew that Lale's twin was engaged to Terem when she adopted Lale, and orchestrated the death of Terem's wife specifically to use Lale as a spy.
- Reverse Mole: Nilang, who desperately wants to get out from under Makina's thumb. She eventually helps Lale kill Makina and stop an oncoming war.
- Show Some Leg: Lale when she and Nilang sneak past the guard to assassinate Ardavan.
- Show Within a Show: The theater troupe's production of Maylane Unyielding, whose plot Lale notes bears an eerie similarity to her own.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Adrine and Lahad (Who or what is stopping them from being together?). Adrine could not be honest with Lahad at first, and her later choice to be honest with him ultimately dooms her to a painful existence and a merciful death.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The book ends with a much older Lale looking over all that she's accomplished in the kingdom with Terem. She's happy, married, and raising girls like Makina did - minus the insane loyalty and spy lessons.
- You're Insane!: Said to Makina by Lale, after the full extent of Makina's insanity and terrible ambition are revealed.