Things that seem common to all of them:
- Engaging, interesting characters, and plenty of time in their heads
- Landscapes and marvels, plenty of “eyeball kicks“
- Ups and downs, characters enduring vicissitudes and working to do their best in spite of them
Book One begins as Shyra, a Dryad, is brought to the city of Tabat in chains, aboard a steamboat. She doesn’t know why she and a handful of her sisters have been brought to the seaport, but she senses that it’s to no good. They’re already enslaved by a social system where humans rule, asserting their Gods-given right over animals and Beasts, the category into which all intelligent magical creatures like Dryads are relegated.
At the same time far to the north on what the Tabatians consider the rough frontier, young Teo is having similar forebodings – his sister is very ill and no one will meet his eyes when speaking of the cure. Teo’s already been rejected by the village because he’s failed to exhibit the shapeshifting powers most of them possess. Finally he discovers that he’s been promised to the Temples of the Moon in Tabat as an acolyte/indentured servant if his sister recovers.
Bella Kanto, premier Gladiator of Tabat, finds herself confronted by a disturbing omen in the form of a lobotomized young Centaur that’s been sold to the Brides of Steel, Tabat’s all-female gladiatorial academy. She goes to see her cousin, Leonoa, a prominent Tabatian artist, only to find Leonoa embroiled in a scandalous love affair. Leonoa shrugs aside conversation, struggling to finish up a few last canvases for a show opening in a few days.
Imprisoned in the Duke’s menagerie, Shyra learns that she and the other Dryads are meant to root and become trees, which will be harvested and fed to the great engine that fuels many of Tabat’s technologies, such as the great Waterfall below the Duke’s castle, the mechanized gondola system that moves the inhabitants from one city terrace to another, and the street lights that show any sign of sorcery or shapeshifter activity on the main streets.
Meanwhile, Teo contemplates fleeing the village. He starts out to do so, only to encounter the Moon priest, Nero, to whom he’s been promised on the road. He and Nero embark on the journey and the stern but sympathetic priest tries to instruct him on the matters he’ll need to know to survive life in the Temple. When Nero breaks his leg, progress is slowed, and even more so when he falls prey to a parasitic fairy in the wilderness. When they arrive at a river town, Nero puts Teo aboard a trade boat, the Eloquent Swan, and entrusts the pilot Archis with getting Teo to the city.
Shyra’s escape is more successful. She manages to slip out of the menagerie and make her way outside Tabat, although she is pursued by the Duke’s Huntress, a relentless and skilled tracker. Nonetheless, Shyra makes her way to the mountains to the northeast of Tabat, where she finds a camp of other escaped Beasts.
When a student of hers from the Brides of Steel is killed in a riot, guilt wracks Bella, particularly since she helped instigate the riot. Political unrest haunts the city, caused by upcoming events: the first election of the Mayor of Tabat, at which point the Duke will reluctantly step down and relinquish his hereditary rule. Bella and the head of the Brides of Steel, Myrila, have a severe falling out. Bella feels she’s been let down by Myrila at a time when she’s facing the pressure of the annual Spring Games. If she assumes the role of Winter and wins, as she has for the past fifteen years, spring will not come to Tabat for another six weeks, impacting trade in a way none of Tabat’s merchants appreciate.
The fireworks of Bella’s victory light the sky the night Teo arrives in Tabat, where he’s entrusted by Archis to Skilto, a merchant-mage handling the Swan’s cargo, more Dryad logs bound for the College of Mages. Skilto lets the boy escape during an accident with one of the logs. Skilto gives the boy’s fate little mind. He’s got his own set of problems, with his father threatening to stop paying his tuition to the College unless Skilto agrees to marry. He’s about to investigate the three candidates presented to him: socialite Lilia Delarose, merchant Marta Lavender, and merchant-historian Ariadne Nittlescent.
Shyra adjusts to life among the escaped Beasts. She’s heartened to hear that they have a plan to free Tabat’s Beasts. They will first infiltrate the city, disguised as the members of the Circus of the Autumn Moon, one of many entertainment troupes drawn to Tabat by the political campaigns and the amount of money being spent on courting political favor. She meets the man who will oversee the Moon, sinister and secretive Murga, whose origins are unknown.
Resolute to avoid the semi-enslavement of Temple life and make his own fate in Tabat, Teo wanders the streets and narrowly escapes being press-ganged. He adapts to life on the streets, begging and scavenging food where he can. He is befriended by a young artist, but disaster follows when his shapeshifting powers unexpectedly manifest. Teo finds himself emperiled by agents of the Duke intent on finding sorcerers and shapeshifters in the city and takes refuge in the Autumn Moon.
A troubled Bella tries to divert herself by taking her friend and sometimes lover Ariadne Nittlescent to the opening of Leonoa’s art show. Skilto and Marta arrive as well, only to find the place the site of a riot incited by the political nature of Leonoa’s paintings, which depict Beasts assuming human roles. Aided by two other gladiators, Bella holds the crowd back long enough to let Leonoa and the other attendees escape.
Skilto’s tried two candidates and found them lacking, although he’s drawn into friendship with Marta Lavender’s father Milosh. When he meets Ariadne at a party, he realizes that she’s the one he’s interested in. Ariadne pays him little mind. She’s too busy thinking about the decision her mother Emilee has made to push Ariadne into political office. Ariadne’s occupied enough with the history of Tabat she’s writing and, unbeknownst to her mother, running a lucrative publishing house specializing in lurid accounts of Bella’s adventures. She’s working on a new book as well, Archis’ account of life on a frontier boat.
Bella agrees to a favor for a lover she picked up at the gallery, only to find herself faced with charges of smuggling deadly sorcerous ingredients. The Duke informs her that he’s sending her with an expedition to the frontier at the end of Book One. Bella’s disgrace leads to a rift between Skilto and Ariadne, deepened when Skilto discovers Archis is courting her as well. Murga hints that he knows Teo’s secret, but Teo avoids any direct discussion of it as he fights to fit in with daily circus life.