Isyllt Iskaldur, a necromancer, arrives in the city of Symir, the Drowning City, on a secret mission to encourage revolt. Symir is the capital of Sivahra, once an independent nation but now conquered and part of the Assari Empire. The ambitious, expansion-minded Empire may be looking to expand further, and Isyllt's home of Selafai is worried. If they can forment enough chaos in Symir, the Assari will be kept too busy to consider further conquest.
The sequel, The Bone Palace, is set three years later but is not set in Symir; only Isyllt crosses over between the two books.
This book provides examples of:
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Zhirin dies, but joins with the river, and the Nakh states that her voice can be heard through it.
- Big Dam Plot: There's a dam. It matters. Any more would be too much of a spoiler.
- Bittersweet Ending: Isyllt got her job done but is injured in duty and loses the use of most of a hand, and Asheris is free of his bindings after years of servitude, but Zhirin is dead and the city lives up to its name with a whole lot of people joining her.
- Broken Bird: In short order, Zhirin lost her mentor, her mother, and then her life over the span of a few days at best.
- Chekhov's Volcano: Mount Haroun.
- City of Canals: Symir (it's not called the "Drowning City" for nothing).
- Demonic Possession: Well, ghosts can possess others or in a worse case a dead body. In the story there are a few cases of both. Though in one case it's a jinn, not a demon, and it is trapped inside its human host and bound to obey with powerful magical bindings.
- The Empire: the Assari Empire.
- Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Indonesia, and South-East Asia in general. The author spent some time in Indonesia.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Zhirin allows the Mir river to sweep her away as the dam breaks so it would protect the city, killing her body almost instantly.
- La Résistance: The Jade Tigers are the sympathetic resistance to Assari rule, while the Dai Tranh are the darker side.
- Magitek: Magic reaches fairly high levels of sophistication in this world, including such things as magical hydro power.
- Low Fantasy: While part of the high-level plot involves international politics, the fate of the world as we know it does not hang in the balance.
- Necromancer: The protagonist, Isyllt, is of this profession. She can call, trap, and banish ghosts, reanimate the dead for short periods, experience the final memories of the dead, make inanimate objects age and corrode rapidly, invoke cold, and other related talents.
- Rebel Leader: Jabbor Lhun, leader of the Jade Tigers.
- Restraining Bolt: The magical seals that the jinn in human form wears, that bind him to serve his master. Once broken the jinn makes it so that his former master pays for it.
- Well Intentioned Extremists: The Dai Tranh, whose motives (freedom for Sivahra and expulsion of their conquerers) are noble, but their methods , especially their "If you're not with us, you're against us" sentiment and consequent willingness to kill their own people in pursuit of their goals, are abhorrent. This culminates in them killing a village who wouldn't aid them and blowing up a mountain volcano.
- White Shirt of Death: Isyllt wears white at the masked festival. White clearly has the Asian association with death in this culture, and several characters comment on it. She also appears in the grey of mourning later on.