I had to really think about what rating to give this. On one hand the book is very flawed but on the other, I didn't want to put it down.
Just as a bit of a disclaimer, I do know that this particular series by Tamora Pierce is not geared towards my age group, and that's likely part of the problem. But as with her continuing _Lioness_ series, this latter book is much more readable to the older audience.
So, the adventures of Sandry, Tris, Daja and Briar continue as the latter three return from their travels to discover that, once reunited, they've grown apart. It's a bit of a shock to them, but not to any of the readers who are over 18 (the age of our protagonists) or have spent any significant time away from close friends. As people grow, age and experience life, they change, and it's hard to reconnect with people who haven't had those same experiences, especially if they were traumatic. And all of them, Sandry included, have experienced their share of trauma.
Their ways of dealing with it set them even more apart. Sandry retreats into her "titled noble" facade, Tris has her own cold and remote mask to hide behind, Briar goes through woman after woman with no attachment to any of them, just so he doesn't have to be alone at night. Daja is the best adjusted of the group, but she's feeling out of place as well. No longer allowed to stay at Winding Circle for free due to their age, she's forced to buy a house of her own that she really didn't want. Nothing's at all the same for the four friends and none of them know how to deal with it.
But, of course, a solution arrives in the form of accompanying Sandry to Namorn for a visit that her cousin, Empress Berenene has practically ordered (financial blackmail). The reader already knows that it's not likely to be a trouble free visit and what they go through up in Namorn will forge them together as friends again, but even knowing that, the story is entertaining enough to make you want to stay with it.
What follows is no surprise at all. A glittery, shiny court and a seemingly friendly empress-cousin, which is, of course, little more than a shiny facade covering up all the conniving, scheming and backstabbing you'd expect in a setting like that. It's something that takes the four friends a bit too long to grasp, to my way of thinking, given how worldly some of them are. Oh, Briar thinks he knows, but he still allows himself to be snowed over by the extensive gardens and greenhouses.
Anyone who reads the inside flap of the book knows that the empress wants to marry Sandry off and thus, keep her lands and money for Namorn (herself, really), so when Sandry finally realizes that, it's, again, no surprise to the reader. Still, Sandry does try to make the best of it, as do her friends, even while they're still in-fighting.
One pleasant development in the book is Daja's romance. It was something that had been hinted around but seeing it actually happen definitely put a smile on my face.
Of course, it all comes together when Sandry is put in danger and needs her friends to rescue her. Then all arguments are thrown aside and they band together to get her out of there and themselves out of Namorn. Not that the road out is smooth (big surprise), but it's nothing four genius mages can't handle, and, once again, nothing the reader didn't expect.
One of the major flaws in the book, the biggest, I'd say, is that every single piece of the plot is spoon fed to the reader. Every major and minor character's view point is shown at some time in the narration, so there's never any surprise when something happens, you always know it's coming. Absolutely nothing is left to the imagination, and there's no build up of mystery or suspense; you always know what will happen, and given who these four are, you always know they'll find a way out. It's a major weak point and if Ms. Pierce had stayed with only the viewpoints of the four mages, she might have had a much, *much* stronger book.
That said, it's still an entertaining story, even knowing everything that will happen. It doesn't get boring and although you already know that the four mages will find a way out of whatever predicament they're currently in, you still want to stick around and see how they do it.