The setting of the series is a world where many people have magical "Talents", and political interactions take the form of the "True Game", in which battles play out like real-life versions of a game something like chess but with as many kinds of chesspiece as there are Talents. (People with no Talents are called "pawns", and often suffer the brunt of their rulers' conflicts.)
As the series progresses, the world is a revealed as a planet in the distant future colonized by humans (implied to have been a dumping ground for the people whose psychic abilities were the foundation for the Talents, who were feared and distrusted on their homeworlds), but also home to many strange native beings.
The first trilogy — King's Blood Four, Necromancer Nine, Wizard's Eleven — follows a young man named Peter as he tries to find his place in the world, and discovers the truth about the planet's history.
The second trilogy — The Song of Mavin Manyshaped, The Flight of Mavin Manyshaped, The Search for Mavin Manyshaped — is a prequel set in the previous generation and featuring Peter's mother.
The third trilogy — Jinian Footseer, Dervish Daughter Jinian Star-Eye — begins as a P.O.V. Sequel to Peter's story, before continuing on to a crisis that determines the future course of the world.
This series provides examples of:
- Anti-Magic: The 'muties' suppress the gifts of all nearby Gamesmen.
- Bad Powers, Bad People: With lampshade-hanging from a scholar who remarks that in every case he's aware of, the unpleasant powers always go to unpleasant people who actually enjoy having them.
- Character Class System: A rare literary example. During the original trilogy the cast works out that there's really only twelve Talents,note not the hundreds recognized by the realms of the world. These are then mixed and matched at lesser or greater levels, rather like a Point Build System.
- Charm Person: The Talent of Beguilement.
- Energy Absorption: A Required Secondary Power for many Talents; when there's heavy magic use going on, the air grows colder because latent heat is being used up to power it. There is also a specific Talent which involves the ability to suck up energy, hold it until needed, and then feed it to one's allies to power their Talents.
- Feudal Future: It is a planet in the future, but the society is run on feudal lines.
- Functional Magic: Not one but two detailed and structured systems of magic. One is described rather better than the other.
- Gender-Restricted Ability: Several of the Talents are gender-limited, or at least rare in one or another sex. Healers and Midwives, for example, appear to be mostly female, while Armigers, Sentinels, and possessors of Necromantic Talents appear to be mostly male. Harpies and Queens are of course always female, while Kings and Princes are of course always male. (Though given that many women amongst the Gamesmen are encouraged to hide or deemphasize their talents, it's hard to know how common certain talents really are amongst them.)
- Genius Loci: There are several examples of Genius Loci such as forests, roads, and pools. It is revealed in the final trilogy that the planet it self also is sentient, and contemplating committing suicide.
- Glamour: The Talent of Beguilement makes the wielder seem more attractive and charismatic when it is used. Powerful Beguilers can make themselves seem irresistibly attractive even if their true bodies are deformed or disfigured.
- Healing Hands: The talent of people called Healers.
- Humans Are Psychic in the Future: The backstory of the series involves a small number of future humans developing psychic powers.
- I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: Hell's Maw, which has a reputation to suit its name.
- Intelligent Forest: Sentient forests feature in the books, among other Genius Loci.
- Invented Individual: When she runs away from home, Mavin claims to be a servant traveling on an errand for a wizard named Himaggery who lives in a distant demesne. Himaggery subsequently takes on a life of his own, to Mavin's occasional annoyance.
- Mind over Matter: Telekinesis is an element of several Talents. The two basic forms are Tragamors, who can manipulate objects, and Armigers, who can levitate themselves.
- Multistage Teleport: Elators are capable of teleporting to anywhere they've been or can see. In one instance, Peter, the protagonist of the first trilogy and a shapeshifter capable of duplicating the other classes' powers, combines elator teleportation with a modification to his eyes to travel fast by sighting on a faraway location and teleporting to it, then sighting on his next target.
- Necromancer: One of the Talents, and always an example of Bad Powers, Bad People.
- Our Demons Are Different: In the Lands of the True Game, "demon" is the technical term for a person who has telepathy. It has no other connotations. There is a legend recording that the first telepath was called a demon by those around her, but the fact that the word meant something different before then has been forgotten.
- Our Werewolves Are Different: The Shifters are introduced in Peter's story as, essentially, werewolves: clans of people whose Talent is to shift at will between human and animal form (the animal being one of the predators that are this planet's equivalent of wolves). The Song of Mavin Manyshaped reveals that they can actually shift into any form imaginable (and frequently hold shape-shifting competitions among themselves) but have a tradition of pretending to outsiders that they each have only one alternate form so that their enemies will underestimate them.
- Planetary Romance
- P.O.V. Sequel: Jinian first appears as a supporting character in Peter's story, and part of her own trilogy retells those events from her point of view.
- Playing with Fire: People with a pyrokinetic talent are called Sentinels.
- Screw the Rules, They're Not Real!: In the climactic battle of King's Blood Four, the Wizard Himaggery ignores the conventional chess-like rules of warfare of the True Game, in favor of setting up a series of gigantic lenses to burn down his opponent's castle. Called out by his Herald:"Hear the words of Himaggery, Wizard of the Bright Demesne. The Wizard does not cry True Game. The Wizard cries Death, Pain, Horror, Mutilation, Wounds, Blood, Agony, Destruction. The Wizard calls all these and more. HE IS NOT PLAYING!"
- Seers: The ability to see the future is the talent of people called Seers.
- Shapeshifter Baggage: Shapeshifters can increase their mass by incorporating additional organic material (Mavin uses a sack of grain at one point), and discard it again to return to their usual size. Decreasing their mass beyond their usual size is not directly addressed.
- Speaks Fluent Animal: Jinian.
- Taken for Granite: Mavin's ultimate fate.
- Telepathy: An element of several Talents.
- Teleporters and Transporters: Elators have the ability to teleport themselves from place to place.
- Tongue-Tied: A character is unable to speak about certain information, but is able to write it down. Even further, any character who reads this information will then find themselves unable to speak the same information.
- Variant Chess: There is a board game similar to chess, but with pieces representing all the different Talents, which members of the ruling classes are taught as practice for leading real armies in the True Game.
- Voluntary Shapeshifting: The talent possessed by Shifters.
- The Von Trope Family: Fon Twizzledale, a foreign nobleman in The Song of Mavin Manyshaped, who starts out being something like light relief (and whose decision to take an active role in the plot is accompanied by a Meaningful Rename).