When I saw this book making the rounds on SPFBO, I decided it looked like it was up my alley. I'm so glad I picked this one up.
The setting is much like old-world Arabia. The author paints a gorgeous picture, with sprawling deserts and mountain ranges and the sea. It feels like you are really there. Primarily, the story focuses on two people groups - those of Tamar, and those of Sarkum, across the mountainous ranges. They are sworn enemies, and have been at odds for at least 300 hundred years, since the Sundering.
The magic system is a bit complex - time is marked by the turning of the Wheel, with six spokes so to speak (called Houses). Each House represents a different magical power structure. Mages are all about balance, so for instance fire and water balance each other, as does air and earth and so on. There is a hierarchy of mages - Charah's being the most powerful, yet they are rare.
The characters were very well done. Naime is a princess, whose father the Sultan of Tamar is slowly losing his mind due to an unknown cause (which is revealed later on in the story). The Grand Vizier, a truly hateful man, is vying for power, convincing the ruling Council to join his side in a bid for the throne. But Naime has other plans. She's a brilliant politician, and since she is a beautiful woman, most underestimate her - to their peril. The Wheel is broken, and the balance is shifting. She seeks to restore the balance by uniting six Charah's of each House. But to do so, she needs the help of Sarkum, and their death mage, Makram. She also needs to be the Sultana, taking her father's place. But since she is not a man, this is no easy task. Makram, on the other hand, is prince in Sarkum, and his brother is the Mizra. Naime sends a missive, asking for a treaty so that Sarkum and Tamar can unify against the Republic, which is slowly taking over the world using higher technology than the other nations have. However, the Mizra senses a trap and refuses to answer. Makram is more forward thinking, so against his brother's wishes, he personally sets off for Tamar to try to suss out their motives.
The politics of this this book is, quite frankly, phenomenal. I absolutely love fantasy heavy in politics, and this book delivers just that. You feel the urgency of Naime as she desperately tries to save her country from impending annihilation while simultaneously trying to keep her Council from turning on her. Her hold is tenuous at best. Makram, on the other hand, is a soldier first. He cares little for political maneuvering, yet finds himself in the middle of his brother's... interesting... decisions, and Naime's need of him. Sparks fly between them, and inevitably they fall in love. Yet, in a twist, Naime finds out Makram is actually a death mage, able to break down anything into dust, people included. And he's a Charah, at that.
This was a great read. Politics, romance, intrigue... this book has it all. I find it hard to believe it hasn't been picked up by a major publishing house yet. Naime and Makram are easy to relate to. They must fight to try to do what is best for their people, all the while facing backlash for it. Naime is all logic and ice until Makram breaks down her reserved nature. He is all tempest and storm, and she softens him.
My one complaint about this story is that the Republic is barely a threat. You only hear what they are capable of (and barely at that) and don't see it. I wish there had been more in that regard. Otherwise, this story is nearly flawless.
4.5/5 stars. If you like fantasy, romance, and politics this book is definitely for you.