I loved this book.
So many things about it called to me. It's set in a world that's influenced by Asian culture, where the Emperor reigns over twelve Dragoneye Masters who are in touch with the twelve dragons representing the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, the individual points on the compass, certain virtues, and together have influence over the natural and spiritual world. In the midst of this fantastic world, we have Eon, who is actually a girl named Eona. She pretends to be a boy at the advice of the man who has bought her out of slavery into another form of slavery, and who trains her to compete in the annual attempts to win over that year's ascending Dragon, to be apprenticed to the Dragoneye who takes the place of the old one about to retire from his year and reign.
Everything about this story is fantastic in the best of ways. Eon herself is a character who fits a role more than she is able to control her destiny, because of the way her world is and the firm rules that reign throughout her culture. Nevertheless, she proves to be the tool through which the action all takes place, and through which the chaos that shortly unfolds is experienced firsthand. And considering how enjoyable working through this deeply cultural tale is, I found myself not minding the role she played because I was having too great a time experiencing the story for myself.
Strangely enough, though I remember I enjoyed the story thoroughly, I find it hard to pick out one thing over another to speak about to praise it. It's one of those books that is filled with enough action and unique controversial situations because of the very male-dominant and royalty-submissive culture that it's rooted in, that many of the features I enjoyed most about the book can be summed up through the desire to see Eon succeed as a woman in disguise where men rule.
The book is also littered with side characters that bring a smile to your face and make you laugh, that make you think and really consider some controversial and unusual situations in a world built to be so strict. The themes of being cripple, of what gender a person is and what roles they play regardless of their natural sex is are very unique concepts to ingrain into a book so thoroughly and prominently. It's one of the places where Alison Goodman really shines with her writing. She takes deep into consideration what living in a world like this would be like, and she plays out these biases and the problems that people face about them very well. It keeps the book interesting, and puts us face to face to situations we would never have thought about having to face otherwise.
Another huge part I loved about this book was the joy of having to face up against a truly challenging, powerful, and complex antagonist as well. It shouldn't be hard to pick his name out after you start getting a hand's breadth into the book, so I'll say the name without real concern for spoilers: Lord Ido. He is the very definition of a great bad guy, and it's his cunning and prominence that truly calls me to him as the man playing that power-hungry, but oh-so-slick role. He rules in this book as the Ascendant Dragoneye for the very year that Eon attempts to come in as his apprentice, should she be chosen by the Dragon of that year. The best part is that you know he's behind nearly all the devious events arising in this book, but he sets them into motion without ever denying that he's the one behind them, and never having to prove that he's the one behind them either. You automatically know that he's the guy that's upsetting you at every stage and turn, and so does everyone else! But he doesn't need to lift a finger in confirmation or defense since the world over acknowledges his superior skill in the role he fulfills, and the underhanded role he influences flawlessly. To further boot, there is a part at the end of the book that confirms my suspicious about his potential awesomeness as the antagonist, and also confirms my immense appreciation for his character. [No spoilers, I promise. But I will talk about this more in my review of Eona.]
Overall, though the book has it's stupidly predictable moments from the get-go, it's got a lot of rich, great world-building around it and multifaceted characters to make reading the book a breeze. I found it deeply enjoyable and fell madly in love with it, especially with the super-amazing-spectacularly-awesome-fantastic twist at the end with Lord Ido. Me gusta. Me gusta mucha.
This book gets a one hundred percent recommendation from me. However, before you pick up this duology, you might want to look to my review of Eona first. There is a great shift between the first book and the second which everyone should take into consideration, especially if you were thinking about buying this duology. It will be filled with spoilers that need to be addressed before the quality of these two books can be addressed as a whole, and whether they were a success or not.
If you go over to read that review now, a major thank you for cooperating with me on that point.