In this particular outing, Rosethorn (still suffering health effects from events in earlier books), Briar and his student Evvy hang out in the Himalayas, er, Gyongxe. Then they go to China, er, Yanjing. They visit the Emperor, and he is Mean. Actually, he's cat-petting Super Villain Evil.
Oh, by the way, I believe in spoilers. Go away now! Run in fear! Aaaaahhhhh!
There's a bit about killing all the gardeners in the middle of the night by burning them in the garden; one of the characters, wakes after dreaming parts of it and then realizes it's really happening, altho not to them personally. There are at least three crucial sequences in the book like this: truly horrific episodes of torture/murder occur while the characters dissociate, or dream part of it and then awake for more and worse, or whatever. The other two are when Evvy is being tortured to what the torturers believe to be her death (but she has dissociated), and when Briar goes to sleep and wakes up after three days to discover Weishu has conquered the city. Sort of.
These transitions -- especially Briar's three day blackout -- are confusing and jarring. On top of that, Rosethorn's Pope, er, First Dedicate Dokyi, insists she's the only person who can undertake a perilous journey to a secret mountain temple hideaway wtf to secrete the elemental Treasures of their faith. She does, but because she's had contact with such Heavy Duty Magic, she starts seeing all kinds of stuff -- as does Briar who touches her pack and gets tossed a ways by the power in it, and the Gyongxe God-King, presumably because he's part God. So throughout the book, these three characters can see paintings on walls move around and moon them and so forth. Also, super cheap having the paintings that they can see move but other people can't see move get "caught" by other people looking obviously different than before. "And then I woke up, but I could smell the scent of roses and wondered if it had all really been just a dream."
Between the blackouts/dissociative episodes, seeing stuff that no one else can see, magical powers (and not magical powers like anyone else, they are special, ambient magical powers) and the cartoonishly evil Weishu, this book is such a catalog of psychotic breaks, hallucination, delusions, etc., that the necessary suspension of belief necessary for me to engage with a fantasy novel became completely impossible for me to achieve.
Evvy has had a pretty amazingly awful life already, depicted in earlier books, and there's just something so over the top about the torture sequence, how she gets away from the pile of corpses she wakes up on, finding the dead cats, being welcomed into the magical mountain, and then the depiction of her friends mourning her death, followed up by her PTSD and her friends continued demands on her to save them. I mean, I _get_ that this is YA and all, but I feel like I am Too Old to be reading this stuff. I just can't take it any more.
By the end of the book, they are relieved at the prospect of returning to comparatively ordinary and well-administered Emelan. Upon their departure, they are informed that while they will continue to dream about the events that transpired in Gyongxe, they won't be able to consciously recall what happened to them there -- that's sort of a protective veil that happens to everyone who goes there. But again, kind of a cheap feeling to it all. "And then I woke up and everything was normal again, but I kept having nightmares."
Maybe this wouldn't bother me so much if I hadn't just been reminded of the horrifying rapes in the Bolivian Mennonite colony that took so freaking long to figure out were happening and then prosecute (and which may not have even stopped). As it is, I just don't think this is the kind of thing I can have fun reading any more. *sigh*