I really did want to like this book. All (10!) lead characters were female so the dynamic seemed interesting. It was set in an historical era fascinating to me. Secret languages. A bit of magic. Unfortunately it never really surpassed my enjoyment-monitor - that being, my heart, as it gets all super-beaty when utterly enthralled about the next thing to happen. More often than not it was the opposite.
I loved the whole concept of the jin-ashu language, mothers passed down to daughters and men are not permitted to learn it. The jin-shei sisterhood was also utterly compelling as a theme. True sisterhood being in the heart not the blood. All these lives to wreck! Joy as an author! As Alexander puts in her notes at the back she based it on a real concept (the language and sisterhood) which was very soon to die out (in 2003 there was one woman left who learnt nushu from her mother - not sure if she's still alive). Utterly great and certainly something that could explode into an amazing and heartwrenching story of betrayal and loyalty and all the best themes from these kind of books.
It just didn't deliver that for me. I can pretty much say I got almost nothing in terms of emotional connection from the characters at all. Out of all of them the friendships between Tai and Antian, and Xaforn and Qiaan were the closest I got to feeling any sense of this utterly compelling oath they had taken, but only just. Because then it's totally pulled the hell out from under you don't get to see them grow. All the bits that would have actually had all the gut-wrenching emotion were scenes that were left out. They were alluded to after to fact, or waaay after the fact, and I'm sitting there thinking, 'why didn't you show me that!'. They way they were used was to incite an 'oh, my!' moment in the reader, but it fell flat every single time to me. I don't want to hear about a good book over there, I want to be reading it, dammit!
Tammary was an interesting character at the start, but as it went on she just settled into this almost pointless existence and was just there to serve the end, as was Xaforn. And Qiaan. And Khailin. And but not really be part of it. Blimey it was frustrating. I love a bit of build-up, get to know the world and characters, and Alma Alexander was obviously infatuated with the era and grows the world well, but a story that has ten lead characters will always sell them short when not a series of at least three books, and gives them each their dues so we can feel for every one of them. A little over 500 pages (even in 9pt) and that many characters will just not do it, and the build up took half of that. Really, nothing really happens apart from the initial catalyst. From then on, things happen, but unless you've bought into the story it's unlikely you'll care.
It's such a shame! Oh well. Next!