This is the latest of the Circle of Magic books. It certainly feels like the last book with the four original characters as they become adults in this book in a way which they hadn’t in the previous eight.
In the opening of the book the four have pushed each other away in their travels, and need to find a way to rebuild their friendship and magical circle. They are asked to travel together to a distant country with a hostile empress, and have to face their responsibilities to each other and the outside world.
This book is stuffed full of magic, political intrigue, friendships, secrets and love. Pierce doesn’t avoid tricky topics and handles mental trauma and discovering homosexuality along with the standard fantasy material of mages fighting against a cruel ruler.
Unlike the earlier books, the more adult themes mean that this doesn’t read like a book for teenagers at all with the exception of the soft-focus attitude to developing relationships. Instead it looks at how a group of young adults all of whom are very accomplished might establish themselves in the world without their teachers at their sides.
I love Pierce’s novels, and although I prefer the Tortall world, the central group in the Circle of Magic series are more fun characters to observe interacting. This series also has there are more books focusing on the same characters, looking at each other from different viewpoints, there is more clear overarching character development.