Rose Hathaway is a Dhampir, a half-vampire. She and her friend, Vasalisa Dragomir, have always made their own rules, from when they ran away from Vampire Academy to protect Lissa's life and Rose took care of her, to when Rose's love, Dmitri, was turned into a Strigoi vampire and Rose ran after him to try to get him back. After being captured and imprisoned by him twice, Rose broke away both times and was reinstated into the school and being Lissa's protector. She and Lissa even took off on their own after graduation to find out how Strigoi vampires could be returned to sanity and managed to do so for Dmitri. But doing so ended Rose's romance with Adrian, another Spirit user.
Because Lissa herself is a user of the least well-known of the elemental powers- Spirit. Lissa's power is strong enough to return life to the dead. She did this once for Rose, creating a bond known as "the kiss of shadows" between them. Now, simply by closing her eyes, Rose can see what is happening around Lissa, and knows where she is and when she is in danger at any moment, as long as she concentrates. It is part of what makes the two so close, although Rose can close down the link when she wants privacy. Her amazing powers come with another drawback- using spirit causes her to have horrible black depressions that only Rose can help her with but taking some of the bad emotions into her own emotions.
The Moroi vampires of which Lissa is a part is facing a problem, a shortage of Dhampir guards and guardians due to increased Strigoi vampire attacks. While the Moroi have some actual life (being born and aging, albeit much slower than humans after they attain adulthood), the Strigoi are actually dead and fit the image of the classic vampire, being conscienceless killers who will drink from anyone, unless the Moroi, who rely on blood donors.
But when the Moroi Vampire Queen decided to deal with the shortage of Dhampir guardians by graduating those guardians from the Academy two years early, Rose was angry about it. The Queen's decision meant that more guardians will be killed because they will have less of a chance to train and grow strong. This would only increase the problem instead of helping it in the long run. However, the alternate idea that Rose, Lissa and several other Moroi and Dhampir had come up with- to actually spend some time training the Moroi to defend themselves, was unconscionable to the Queen. Rose had made her outrage known in no uncertain terms, so when the Moroi Queen turned up dead, she was blamed for the crime and imprisoned for the deed, despite having been nowhere near the Queen when she died.
The Moroi leadership didn't want to look into what really happened any more than that- they had someone to blame who seemed good for the crime and were content. But Rose's friends, including Lissa, know that she isn't responsible and break her out of the guardian prison before she can be executed. Rose and Dmitri (who was rescued from being Strigoi by Lissa and a spirit-infused stake) must go on the run while Lissa, Adrian and Rose's other friends work inside the court to try and prove not only Rose innocent of the crime, but find out who really killed the Queen and bring her to justice.
Rose and Dmitri can't simply hope to stay off the grid and be unrecognized, because Dhampir enforcers are on their trail and trying to track them down to bring Rose to justice. Rose gets the help of some of her father's secret operatives in the Alchemists, specifically Sydney Sage. Although she dislikes both Moroi and Strigoi, she is willing to help Rose and Dmitri to flee the Moroi court for a bunch of Dhampir who have renounced the whole of Moroi society. But is their society any healthier than the one she left behind in court? And when one of them decides to fight Rose for the "right" for her brother to marry Rose, can Rose defend herself well enough to keep the both of them free? Dmitri might claim that his feelings for Rose have died, but how much of that is horror over the things he did when he was Strigoi and feeling unworthy of the lengths that Rose went to in trying to save him from his undead state? Can there ever be any love between them again, and how can Rose choose between Dmitri, her first and strongest love, and Adrian, who she fell in love with for helping her again and again?
Meanwhile, in the Moroi court, while the search continues to go on for Rose, a new Ruler of the Moroi must be chosen, and while Rose witnesses it all through Lissa's eyes, a surprising secret comes to light. Lissa is supposed to be the last of her family line, which makes her ineligible for the Succession. But Abe Masur, Rose's father, and others believe that Lissa is *not* the last of her line and that she might have a relative, somewhere. So while Lissa is able to join those Moroi in the running to become the new Moroi ruler, she and Rose must find Lissa's relative to make her participation in the tests to become ruler more than just an intellectual exercise.
But finding out the truth may cost Rose her life more than just being on the run for supposedly killing Queen Tatiyana, and there are plenty of other plots that could cost Lissa her life as well. Even with Rose able to see through Lissa's eyes, Rose is too far away to keep her safe in the manner she usually uses, and while Rose works to find Lissa's relative, Lissa works to prove Rose innocent in the midst of the many gruelling tests of leadership while avoiding plots to kill her, even though she is a favorite to become Queen amidst the younger generation and the less hidebound Moroi. Can both Lissa and Rose succeed, and how will they react to a final twist that could completely change the relationship they have shared for so many years?
This is the last book in the Vampire Academy series, but Richelle Mead has already announced a spin-off series focussing on different main characters, so if you really enjoyed this series, that can offer you some hope that you'll be seeing more of at least some of the characters, Adrian, Jill and Sydney being at least some of them. And you will get to see how Lissa, Rose and their loves are doing, and possibly changes that the new ruler will be introducing to Moroi society.
I found this to be a fascinating book. So much is changing for the Moroi. It's possible to rescue and redeem Strigoi from their state, but it's also very hard, and the mental state of the redeemed vampires, as is witnessed by how Dmitri reacted to suddenly being Dhampir again, may end up killing them off. In this book, we get to see another Strigoi being redeemed, and at least this one has hope, because the one who loved them is still around and still has feelings for them, possiblt allowing them to get over what they have done.
But more than just Rose's trial and tribulations, this book is about Lissa finally having to stand up for herself and what she believes in and possibly bring those things to Moroi society as a whole. In many of the books, Lissa, even while Rose was apart from her, sort of went along to get along, but now she has to stand up and stand strong without anything but Rose's mental support, all the while undergoing some truly torturous quests to prove that she has what it takes to be the Queen of the Moroi- all the while not knowing if she will even be able to become Queen, unless Rose manages to find the other living member of her family.
The subplot with Lissa's trials nicely interweaves with the one of Rose fleeing the other guardians and her quest to find Lissa's relative. The plots come together just in time to save them both, and while the ending completely changes the relationship between Rose and Lissa, I may have found it disconcerting, but in the end I liked what happened, and I also liked the way both main characters got what was coming to them, in so many, many ways! I can't wait to read "Bloodlines", the first book in the new series, and see where the worlds of the Moroi and Strigoi go from here.
This book builds on everything that has gone before in the series and provides a tension-filled and thrilling ending to the series and to the lives of both characters. The series ends on a hopeful note while making a (to me) completely unseen twist that changes the main characters relationship to each other, Other readers might see it as having a familiar rug pulled out from under them and not like it at all, but you'll just have to read it for yourself to see. Highly recommended, and a phenomenal ending to an amazing series.