It’s a fantasy novel, of course, and it concerns two sisters, two sisters of seven, in fact. As the book begins, their father, a successful stone merchant, has just died, joining their mother in death. None of the sisters, being female, can legally own the business. War is on the horizon, credit is scarce, and former business partners are liable to be wary. If the eldest can marry her betrothed, all will be well; he can own the business, and the third sister understands it well enough to run it. But her betrothed’s family won’t let him marry into a business going into ruin; they need money for a dowry.
And so we come back to the two sisters of our story. The older of the pair, Karah, is beautiful and loving; the younger, Nemienne, has, in Terry Pratchett’s terms, “first sight and second thoughts”. To save the family, some of the sisters must be sold into service, and these are the two who make the most sense, Karah for her beauty and Nemienne because the family can get on quite well without her, as she is the first to point out.
Karah is sold to Cloisonné House, there to learn to be a keiso: more or less a geisha, but with even higher social standing. Keiso are entertainers and conversationalists; if a patron wants more than that, he must wed the keiso as his “flower wife”. The children of his flower wife are called his “left-hand children”, and must be acknowledged and cared for.
Nemienne is not attractive enough to be a keiso, but the Mother of Cloisonné house sees something in her eyes, and sends her to the door of Ankennes the mage, who is looking for an apprentice.
Meanwhile, a young man named Taudde, a citizen of neighboring Kalches, has gotten himself in trouble. He is a Kalchesene bardic mage, and is in Lirionne incognito, in defiance of the ban. (It is Kalches that Lirionne is likely to be at war with in the near future.) Two powerful men, one of them Ankennes, have determined what he is, and are determined to use him in some scheme of their own.
Will there be war? Will Taudde end in prison? Will Nemienne make a mage? Will Karah make a keiso, and become the flower wife of a powerful noble of Lirionne? I think you can guess the answers to all of those questions, but therein hangs the tale.
Me, I enjoyed it. I read it at the airport and on the plane to Dallas this last week, and it kept me quite thoroughly occupied. I liked the characters, and how they grew; I liked the descriptions; and the magical elements were sufficiently original. Good fun.