After years of rigid self-control and endless training, Emras is chosen as Royal Scribe to the Princess Lasva. Lasva is beautiful and kind, the younger sister of Colend's queen and the presumed heir to its throne. The Colendi court is full of poetry, music, flirtations and dance. Generations ago Colend signed the Compact, which swore the country to have no weapons. In the Colendi court, hierarchy is determined through wit and beauty, not martial superiority. But when Lasva's sister finally bears a child, Lasva is no longer the heir or free to love who she pleases. Instead, a political match is sought for her. Prince Ivandred of the warlike barbarians of Malroven Hesea foils Lasva's kidnapping, and the physical attraction between them is so strong that they marry almost immediately. Lasva (with Emras and other handmaidens in tow) follows Ivandred to her new kingdom, where everything is about survival and physical might, and no one respects or understands the arts or the Colendi's desire for peace. While Lasva toils to gain respect and power in a homeland that discounts everything she prizes, Emras strives to learn magic to keep them all safe.
This is set generations after the Inda series, and it's sad to see what little survives of those characters' efforts. Inda has faded into legend, his tale generally known only through a book written by Elgar the Fox, his sometime ally. The reforms Inda made in the Academy have faded, leaving the Academy as damaging to its students as ever. Many of the places and titles in Malroven Hesea will be familiar to readers of Inda, but this book would still have made sense without reading that series. That said, this book definitely had a lot more power and resonance with me because I was looking for clues as to what had happened to everyone's ancestors and their plots.
There are two odd things about this book that I didn't like. One is that the first ~300 pages deal entirely with the personalities and court politics of Colend. It's told in a wonderfully detailed way. It drew me in to their way of thinking, until I could tell that someone accepting a particular pastry was an insult and I actually cared. But the second half is told in much broader strokes and with uneven pacing. The personalities of the Marloven court remain cyphers, their plots and love affairs rear their heads and then are dropped, to be replaced with some other plot that Emras is equally confused by. Several times, ten years pass in a single sentence. This means that the epic battles against foes beyond time and the magic, all of which take place in the second half of the book, are given far less attention and time than who wore what ribbons in the first half of the book, which seems to me a poor choice. I felt like Smith got bored with the second half and rushed through it. And although I appreciated the contrast between the vicious emotional backstabbing in Colend and the physical wars in Marloven Hesea, the many characters and customs of Colend never become important to the plot after Lasva leaves the court. I don't know why so much time was spent introducing Carola as a villain, or Lasva's fan training, if none of it ever influenced the plot. I really wish the second half of the book had been split off into its own book, or even developed into several books, because there was enough plot there to fuel it, and I would have appreciated more characterization and detail for the Marlovens.
The other difficulty I had was with the lack of affect. Emras is very intellectual and often closes herself off for days or even months at a time to pursue her studies. The section where she discovers that she has been manipulated by a Norsundrian and is using magic in an evil way was powerful and a fascinating twist on fantasy tropes. But most of the time, the driving action is done by Lasva or Ivandred, and I don't feel like I really had a good idea of what was going on inside their heads, especially Ivandred. And since there's this whole big ending in which Lasva is Guinevere, Ivandred is Arthur, and Kaidas returns for no apparent reason to be Lancelot, I really wanted to be inside their heads and know what their frustrations and loves were. As it was, it was very hard to take anyone's love affairs seriously, or feel that it was Epic and Doomed.
I think I hold Smith to too high of a standard, because her books are so ambitious and innovative, while still satisfying my childish hopes for fantasy. Her characters deal with (fantasy) racial stereotypes, cultural customs, sexuality, how to be pacifistic without being submissive, how to raise children in blended families...Her magic systems are both fantastical (worlds beyond time!) and practical (cleaning spells, message spells). Her characters relate to each other in all manner of ways, from friendship to distant respect to lust to platonic love. The world began in the Inda series is a fascinating one, and one I hope she continues writing in. I just wish she'd give herself a little more time and space to properly explore all the characters and plots she introduces.