Densely plotted beginning of a trilogy blending romance and female empowerment in an unevenly realized world where magic is a tie that binds and reality is just about anything Zettel (Kingdom of Cages, 2001, etc.) wants it to be. It's 1899, and Bridget Lederle, the keeper of a lighthouse on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Superior, is used to rescuing boats and the men who happen to wash up on the rocks. This time, the boat is vaguely familiar, and the strangely costumed man she drags ashore summons odd visions in Bridget's mind of a place called Isavalta, a fairy-tale realm loosely based on pre–Peter the Great Russia. That Bridget is an ostracized mother of a child born out of wedlock makes it easier to accompany the man, a sorceror named Valin Kalami, to Isavalta, where Dowager Empress Medeoan hopes that Bridget will break the spell that makes the Empress's son, Mikkel, act like he's been fed too many tranquilizers. Among the excessive complications awaiting Bridget is Ananda, a princess from Hastinapura, a Mogul-period India. Ananda has been betrothed to Mikkel as part of a political arrangement that will unite the two nations against the Empire of Hung-Tse. Though Ananda loves Mikkel, she hasn't broken the spell—and maybe the Dowager doesn't want her to, having banished Ananda's wiley sorceror Sakra, who has entered into a peculiar alliance with crows that can turn into human form. For Zettel, magic is literally entanglement: sorcerors cast spell by weaving threads, wires, ropes, and hair and, as Bridget wondrously discovers, creating patterns in movement and sound.
When Sakra exclaims in frustration, “How am I to hold all these threads?,” the reader may wish to conjure a scissor.