For the past several years, I’ve been sloooowly making my way through all of Tamora Pierce’s books, first with all the Tortall books, and then with Emelan. I’ve liked all the Emelan books, but have always preferred the Tortall books. This is the first Emelan book that has made that opinion waver a little. Maybe it’s just because this is the first time Pierce’s self-imposed structural limitations on this series have been lifted. The first four books were for children, about children (ten and eleven year olds) and while they were great, I was at a bit of an emotional remove from them. The second four books split all of our characters up and had them go on separate adventures, which was fun, but also *not* fun, if you know what I mean.
In The Will of the Empress, our four ambient mages and foster-siblings Briar, Sandry, Daja and Tris are reunited for the first time in four years as eighteen-year olds. They have been acting the part of adults for years, since they got their mage medallions at the age of fourteen, but now they are finally coming into the bodies and minds of adults to match their already existing adult responsibilities. It’s not all flowers and roses when they reunite, either. They’ve grown apart in the four years since they left Winding Circle, and while they still love each other, they are all full of complicated conflicting emotions that they have to work through in order to renew their emotional and magical ties to one another. When they last left each other, they could speak through their magical bond telepathically and share powers. Now, none of them but Sandry wish to re-open that connection, afraid of what the others will see, or resentful, if they do.
And all of this is happening at the same time as a personal crisis for Sandry. Her cousin, the empress of Namorn, has finally gotten her wish for Sandry to return to her home country after years as an ex-patriot in Emelan. Sandry doesn’t wish to return because she knows the empress is smart and cunning, and always gets what she wants, and what she wants is for Sandry and her income to remain in her home country. So Sandry heads home, and brings her three mage-siblings in tow. They end up having to navigate the politics of the court, at the same time as Sandry realizes about her home and lands and responsibilities that she has been ignoring for years.
It was all just really well done. The emotional conflict between the siblings was believable, and the empress struck exactly the right balance between being a competent and fearsome ruler, and a person who has genuinely come to believe that it’s okay to wield controlling power over everyone, because it’s in their best interests. There’s also a central conflict that involves gender roles and power struggles that I won’t spoil, but it’s key to the whole thing.
I really enjoyed this book, and I can’t believe I only have two more Tamora Pierce books left (plus a Tortall short story collection). I’ve heard the next two aren’t great, but then again, I heard that about this one, too, and it just turned out that people wanted puppies and rainbows instead of real human emotional conflict. But she’s got a new book coming out next year as well, so all is not lost, even if the naysayers turn out to be right.