This was everything I think a middle book in a trilogy should be. It advanced the story, it added more characters in a natural way, it expanded the world. In short it was great.
I often come to middle books in the series and find so many times that they wind up sort of stalling for time. Let's be honest, most trilogies should only be one to two books tops and the middle book winds up suffering so much for that. The author will spend too much time rehashing events that happened in the first book or, if we're talking about books that run in the romance genre, they spend time setting up the heroine with the guy we know she won't get with because she can't get with the hero until the third book.
None of that happened here. I kept holding my breath and waiting for "does everyone remember what happened in the last book? Let's recap for the people who didn't notice 'Lotus War Book Two' on the cover!" but it never came! And I was ecstatic, it was great not to have to have to spend pages reading a recount of events I just read. Plus, the focus of this series is freeing the Shima Empire (and the world) from the lotus flower because it's so deadly, so there's not really a lot of time for romance. In the first book, Yukiko obsessed over Hiro and in the first few chapters of this book she wonders about her feelings for Kin, but she spends with the rest of the book being captured and trying to find out why her power has suddenly amplified.
I really loved how there were many new characters introduced in an organic way and how everyone's stories intersected. Yukiko's the main character and she was present for the first part, but she spends much of part two captured and separated from Buruu, thus allowing other characters and members of the Kage to shine. We of course get to see the Iishi Mountain Kage sect, but we're also told of the Kage rebellion brewing in Kigen City, and we see Hana, who works at the Palace emptying chamber pots and who joined the rebellion after Yukiko returned to Kigen after Yoritomo's death and gave her speech about throwing off the shackles of the Lotus Guild.
Speaking of Yoritomo, now that he's gone, Hiro takes his place as the resident bad guy, attempting to marry Aisha and sire an heir to that bloodline. Poor Aisha is all I'll say. I kept wanting a chapter from her POV but when the end came and Michi finally reunited with her, I understood why it wasn't possible. While I don't think Hiro is as much of a monster as Yoritomo, holy crap, he's so blinded by his hatred of Yukiko. (view spoiler)
My heart broke for Kin this book. He didn't have an easy go of it last book when he crashed in the mountains with Yukiko and the Kage sect there hated him for his occupation. This book opened with him escaping the Guild and fleeing to the Iishi mountains to reunite with Yukiko, while the Guild attempted to kill him. While he and Yukiko are there, another member of the Guild seeks refuge, Ayane, a false-lifer. (And here we learn that all female members of the Guild are false-lifers and have no say in that, they also have a silver, orb-like apparatus attached to their backs that give them 8 extra razor-like arms. They cannot detach these arms.) The Kage hate Kin and, as you can imagine, are not wild about Ayane; they keep her locked up after rescuing her. And the Kage winners from the last book, Isao, Atsushi, and Takeshi, assault Kin every chance they get this book.
So you can't really blame Kin for doing what he does at the end. He spends the book wondering what he's doing there since Yukiko's not there. Nobody in the rebellion is actually sticking up for him despite his efforts to help them all the time. And while they can be suspicious of him because of his former occupation, I mean look at what the Guild did to the world, look at what they're doing to the foreigners, Kin also recognizes that the Guild is wrong and Ayane said there is a secret faction of the Guild that has rebel sympathies. I can acknowledge that the second is only confirmed around the end by a note held by a gaijin, but, seriously, Kage guys, don't look a gift horse in the mouth, yeah?
I said this in my review for the first, but I really appreciate the strong female characters and this round is no different: Aisha is still defiant, despite being confined to her room most of the book; Michi is the same, using her sexuality in an attempt to gain her freedom; Ayane was a lovely addition because I didn't know there were women in the Guild (though I'm kinda suspicious about her!); Hana wowed me, she possessed the Kenning, she came from an abusive domestic situation, she had to do what she did to survive in Kigen City, and yet she and her brother still rescued, took in, and raised a kitten. I know the blurb on the cover (by Patrick Rothfuss, whom I totally respect!) praises Yukiko as the strong heroine of the series, but this series is PACKED with strong women. You can't really turn your head without meeting one, AND I LOVE THAT.
I can't think of many complaints I had for this book. It fixed the disjointed-ness I felt in the first book, yeah. I mean, it was a little long and some of the Michi chapters, especially since she was confined to her room for much of them, were a bit boring, BUT they were important chapters since they showed us what was going on in the Palace. Hana was there to initially show us how locked down the Palace was after Yoritomo's death and the rebels capture and Aisha was unavailable, but Michi was basically pumping (tee hee~) Hiro's cousin for information the entire novel and when she wasn't getting information out of him, she was at events on his arm.
One of the other events I wasn't too big on was how Yukiko spent most of part two captured by gaijin lightning farmers. She was out of it some chapters and then spent others using her Kenning figuring out where she was and if she could get herself out, but there were large chunks where she was just out of the action and others were in it, which was really important when you have a story like this where you have to intricately weave a story of rebellion and you can't just have people the reader doesn't care about popping up and dying or aligning themselves with the rebellion.
Overall, this was basically everything I could hope for in a middle book and that's a rare honor from me. I can count on one hand the trilogies where I've read a middle book and that book has actually advanced the story and answered questions while putting forth more for the final book to answer and that's all I ever want in a middle book in a trilogy.