In spite of past evidence of his ill intentions towards Tortall, Emperor Ozorne of Carthak proclaims innocence and seems to be the very picture of a benevolent host, which somewhat reassures the very antsy delegation party and confuses Daine, for whom the image of the Emperor's concern for his birds and the devastation visited upon Tortall in his name are at extreme odds. The dynamic between the delegates and the Emperor is complicated by the presence of Numair, who fled Carthak and the Emperor years before the beginning of the series and had been admitted back into the Empire on a tenuous pardon from Ozorne.
Though Ozorne works hard to uphold the image of his "perfect" empire, it becomes increasingly clear that there is something amiss in Carthak. Through the action of the patron goddess of Carthak, the Graveyard Hag, Daine becomes unwillingly involved in both the political and religious struggles of the empire.
All of a sudden, things begin to go wrong. The gods, it is clear, are displeased with Emperor Ozorne, and pressure increases on Daine to act as their chosen vessel.
When everything begins to go wrong and Ozorne commits the most base treachery, Daine uses her powers--both her wild magic and a new power bestowed upon her--to bring Carthak to her knees and destroy the rule of the Emperor Mage.
Clearly, Daine is a total bad-ass.
Emperor Mage is my favorite in the series for a lot of reasons, but especially because of the new landscape we get to explore through Daine's eyes. There is also a great deal of movement in both the emotional and the physical plots, as relationships between the characters deepen and the series begins to realize its final trajectory. It's a pretty rich, evocative read, especially for a book of its sort (let's be honest, now--Tamora Pierce isn't a Tolkien or anything, but she is very good at what she does), and it's quick as well. I flew through this one in four days without sacrificing any work or sleep (though I did spend a lot of time at the gym...I get all of my fun reading done at the gym these days).
For fans of Wild Magic and Wolf-Speaker, this next book in the series will really knock your socks off. It's a fabulously fun read, and it benefits from the fact that it is a later book in the series. It seems to me that Pierce is more comfortable of her characters in this volume than she was in the previous books of the series, and that comfort translates into much more effective writing.
All in all, a job very well done.
Rating: 12+ (advisory: themes of doom, treachery, violence, "canoodling" [though this is only ever made vague mention of])