The story begins with our protagonist, Sonea, heading back to the slums, her family having been run out of their current home, the place where they'd finally gotten a leg up on life and found decent housing inside the city. While trekking through the mean streets in search of a new place for the family to live, Sonea overhears the guards talking about a trap, and not wanting her old street friends to get caught, she goes to warn them. In doing so she puts herself on the front lines of the yearly slum purge conducted by the magicians.
Furious at the injustice of it all, Sonea joins the other dwells, those who dwell in the slums, and throws rocks at the magicians. The magicians are behind a barrier and none of the missiles being launched are having any effect. That infuriates Sonea as well, and then as if by, well, magic, the rock she throws goes through the barrier and takes down a wizard.
Sonea is stunned. She doesn't understand what happened, why her rock got through the barrier. She's not a magician. There are no magicians that come from the lower classes. The magicians are stunned too and she's been noticed. As one of the magicians points at her, several magicians incinerate a boy standing next to her. Sonea runs, returning to the streets below the slums, and her old friends, for safety as the Magicians Guild searches for her.
The world build is inconsistent, as is Sonea’s character. There’s a strong magic practice in this story that sets itself up to be a power to be controlled and heavily monitored. It’s known to be inherited and yet the idea that a girl from the slums exhibits the power is seen as an extreme oddity. The dwellers of the slums aren’t tested for power even though it’s known that the magicians seek out female company there and that the people of this particular country ‘breed’ more magicians than any other.
There’s a yearly purge of the slums by the magicians to keep population numbers under control and run out bad elements, but there’s no rhyme or reason, people are just herded, and herded where? There’s an insinuation that the people are being killed, but the author dances around this. That dance becomes furious once Sonea ends up at the guild and the magicians begin convincing her to join them.
Sonea hides from the guild with the thieves, the same thieves who are hiding a rogue magician. Do they take her to him immediately for help to train her to control her growing power? No. And by the time they do take her, she’s becomes dangerous, too dangerous for him to be of any help. He doesn’t explain anything to her. I don’t know why he was even mentioned.
It becomes obvious that being on the run was nothing but a big contrivance that never had a chance of succeeding. Even one of the magicians says later that the thieves turned Sonea in to them. Magic is a known quantity in this world. The thieves knew what would be required to keep Sonea in the beginning and didn’t do it. I don’t buy the rogue magician not being able to train her and it doesn’t match what happened when Sonea did get to the guild.
Once she gets to the guild, she still doesn’t know control and she’s now with the very people who have once a year killed off dwells in the slums, but without training, she is suddenly calm enough that random, dangerous outbursts of magic stop occurring. Contrary to what the rogue magician said, power doesn’t factor in when it comes to mentoring or training on the part of the trainer. After hating magicians for a lifetime, a short lifetime but still - in a matter of weeks they convince her they’re good and she joins up.
There was a real potential in this story for the class, gender, and power divisions to really be strong themes that told a dramatic tale, and the author shied away from them and instead gave us a lot of little conflicts that didn’t add up. I would give other books by Canavan a try, but not this trilogy.