For all its length, this is a quick read: I made it through in a week. That's because for all its weight, it's a light read. There's no scheming here, no passages to peruse for deeper meaning, no characters whose motivations are hidden. Moirin marches from one end of pseudo-Asia to the other and back, always knowing exactly where she's going. After all, she's got a soulbond to follow.
Soulbonds, incidentally, are one of my most hated tropes in fantasy literature, which is why I was thrilled when Bao's reaction was not to fall at Moirin's feet but to promptly flee pseudo-China for pseudo-Mongolia and marry someone else. But Carey lost every point she won from me when Bao's next move, the day Moirin shows up at his doorstep, is to fall into bed with her and announce he's abandoning his wife. After all, he never loved Erdene (though she, of course, loved him); he only married her because it was politically convenient. Now it's convenient to cast her aside.
No. No, no, no. You do not get to do that--without a shred of apology, guilt, or regret--and keep my respect as a moral protagonist. Not even if the author waves it away by having Moirin speak a few words to Bao's wife, which instantly convinces her that she shouldn't stand in the way of True Love. I can't help but compare Bao to Imriel, who may have felt he made a mistake when he left Sidonie to wed Dolorei but at least tried to make things work--and talked to his wife himself when he couldn't.
Bao and Moirin's choice particularly bugs me because the pseudo-Tartars are polygynous. There's no particular reason he has to abandon his wife to be with Moirin, and I think an exploration of polygyny would have been a lot more interesting. The book could still have followed the same basic plot, even, with Erdene eventually making the choice to step aside. I certainly would have found her acquiescence more believable if it came after months of interaction with Bao and Moirin, instead of one conversation. And it would have given her more agency.
But no: Carey took the easy route, and I spent the next 400 pages trying to get over the protagonists' selfishness and failing. That's partly because there wasn't much else in the middle of interest. Moirin is kidnapped and forced to confess her "sins" by a religious zealot for months. The basic concept is somewhat engaging, but the confession drags, since we've already heard all about those sins in the previous book. Meanwhile, Moirin lacks agency; she's eventually freed by one of her captors through no effort of her own except (maybe) her innate loveableness.
And about that innate loveableness: yeah. Everyone Loves Moirin (or is evil). Do I get tired of that? Yes, yes I do. At least Phedre and Imriel's excessive awesomeness and beauty was tempered by the fact that some of the good guys distrusted or flat-out hated them.
Eventually, Moirin escapes to pseudo-India, where she meets someone ever more innately lovable than her. In many ways this was my favorite section of the book: the protagonists finally had both agency and goals to direct it towards. And hey, there was something for Carey to describe besides endless steppes and snow--and she can write compelling descriptions. Reading about Moirin's pseudo-Indian meals made me salivate.
But Carey again loses me by taking the easy way out. First Moirin is faced with a choice: she can give up Naamah's gift, which makes her particularly susceptible to the evil Spider Queen, or she can keep it and risk the consequences. She keeps it. . .and the consequence, as it turns out, is nothing at all.
Then the Spider Queen is given depth by means of a Tragic Past. Her actions become understandable. Her approach is wrong, of course (she's the villain, after all), but she's reacting to genuine injustice. This should leave the protagonists with a tense choice: do they try to rehabilitate her, or kill her and deal with their guilt?
Instead, she kills herself. And the centuries-long injustice that drove her into a life full of evil is righted with a few quick, unsatisfying waves of the protagonists' hands.
Unsatisfying pretty much sums up the book for me, I guess. But I'm going to finish the series, because I'm a completionist at heart. If nothing else, I think Carey does better when writing in pseudo-Europe.