Dunleavy Mallorough is a Shield, part of the Source and Shield service that protects the planet from strange, unexpected cataclysms that afflict it every so often. Sources can channel forces to avert the cataclysms, but Shields protect the sources from killing themselves as they do so. Sources and Shields are protected by the Empress, and must use their powers to keep everyone safe. On the other hand, they do not have to pay for the goods and services they need- the people must give them it for free in return for the promised protection.
Sources and Shields must be matched to work together well, so when Dunleavy finally graduates, she is taken to a meeting of Sources with six of her fellows who are also graduating at the same time. There, they are introduced to a like number of Sources. While it is possible that none of them will make a match, it is hoped that they will, as the jobs for unmatched Shields is limited to teaching or administrative duties. And she knows at least four of the Sources that she hopes she will be matched with. All are fairly sober, for Sources, as far too many of them are like children- it is generally that the Shields are the practical members of the match, while the Sources are just there for their powers. But the Sources that Dunleavy, or Lee, as she is known to her family, want to be matched with are all taken by other Shields, leaving only two: Creol, a Source who is actively malevolent and whom no one wants to be matched with, and Lord Shintaro Karish, a Source who only seems to have having a good time on his mind, and who is so handsome and beautiful that everyone seems to want to get into his bed. Lee wants nothing to do with either one, but while she feels nothing with Creol, she finds herself binding with Shintaro when they look into each other's eyes.
Lee is devastated to be bound to someone like Shintaro. Sources and Shields are bound forever, and the death of one immediately leads to the death of the other, so she can't even just wait for him to die to be free of him. Her family, though, is charmed by her new partner, and seem happy and excited for her to have such an illustrious partner. Lee doesn't feel the same, but she can't explain to her family why she isn't at all happy with what happened. Afterwards, the newly paired Sources and Shields are allowed out into town for the first time on their own- it's too dangerous for them to be around each other and people without their powers (known as 'Regulars") until they are bound, as an unregulated binding can be incredibly dangerous. There is also the problem of music- Shields are incredibly affected by music, and the wrong kind can actually cause them to attack others and be dangerous, and so their Sources must protect them from it. Lee herself is one of the weakest in this regard, as music affects her incredibly quickly.
At the party, the Source and Shield are supposed to share their life stories, but Shintaro, while asking her to call him "Taro", is put off by the way she continues to call him "Karish". He realizes that she views him with scorn and while they eat a meal, he tries to charm her, only putting her off even more. And before they can talk after the meal, the receive a scroll with their new posting. They have been assigned to the town, or actually, city of High Scape. This is very unusual, but High Scape is one of the most active cities for Pairs. So many catastrophes try to affect the towns that there are six pairs assigned to the city to keep it safe. And now, with Lee and Taro assigned to the city, there will be seven. The need to leave early the next day, and the shock of being assigned so soon after their pairing makes them cut short their conversation and go to bed early.
The next day sees them set off for High Scape, and Taro finds Lees behavior to be irritating. She will only call him "Lord Karish", and ride slightly behind him and to the right, as though she is lesser. He tries to get her to ride next to him so that they can talk, but part of the way a Shield learns enough about their Source to Shield them correctly is to observe him, and this position is the best one to do that. It's also traditional, even if Taro scorns tradition, Lee feels that tradition is right, otherwise, it would not have become tradition. A stopover in a wayside inn brings a meeting with a cousin who is also a Shield, and he's just as unhappy with his own pairing as Lee is with hers, but he actively seems to despise his Source. Worse, he's attracted to Taro, as is her cousin's Source, and witnessing this double jockeying for Taro's affections rubs Lee the wrong way, leaving her more disillusioned with her Source than ever.
But High Scape is extremely active, so much so that sometimes, Taro must call on his powers at every watch. And even though Lee doesn't like Taro's seeming addiction to women, gambling and parties, she discovers that he has another power of his own: the ability to douse pain and even make someone heal faster. As Lee becomes close to a Regular named Aiden, who she met on her first night in town and defeated at an exercise called Step Dancing- which caused him to break his knee and caused him extreme pain, she has to deal with her guilt over her being the one who was there when Aiden was injured, and since he was her opponent, her feeling that she caused his crippling wound and ended his career as a professional Step Dancer, and his insistence that she is actually acting as Taro's servant and unable to see her subservience to him.
Then, a strange magical catastrophe kills off five of the other seven pairs in the city and drives another into a coma, leaving only Lee and Taro to keep the city safe. This one is unusual in that the catastrophe doesn't feel like the others, and it actually HURTS to fight it off. A week later, a second one comes, and this one is only stopped when Lee throws the pain she is feeling as her shields are slowly failing back at the catastrophe, which somehow ends the attack. But just as other pairs come to the city to help out, and Taro manages to bring the other pair out of their comas, someone tries to kill Taro. Lee is stricken, trying to keep her partner safe, and she meets a Runner, a sort of policeman, named Risa, who believes her when Lee says it wasn't her that tried to kill Taro.
Other matters keep Lee busy, like defending the Source of the last remaining pair from the original six when his Shield is unable to overcome her fear of the pain she felt in the first attack to do her job and defend him. Lee is angry at the woman, who let her fear of the pain override her duty. Now both of them will be unable to do their jobs and become useless. Lee feels that the woman has let her Source and the Triple S down by her actions. Then, just as he recovers, Taro is kidnapped and disappears. Once again, Lee must convince the Runners she has nothing to do with Taro's disappearance, and she wants to get him back. By reading his letters, she sees there are four possibilities: one is that his family kidnapped him. Taro is the second son of Lord Westsea, and his brother was in line for the position, but has since died of a disease. Taro's mother wants him to become Lord, but Taro has no love for his immediate family, and no training or the desire to become Lord Westsea. Second is that Taro might have made enemies due to his gambling or for his love interests. Lastly, there is the possibility that he could have been kidnapped by Creol, who now is in Middle Ridge and has been asking Taro to join a new association started by him to give more power to the Sources and Shields.
Aiden, who is helping Lee, helps her see that her best bet is to check out Middle Ridge, as the Runners are being too slow. Lee can't just sit around waiting for the slow wheels of Justice to grind, and even though Aiden still hasn't made a full recovery from his broken knee, he wants to help her. But every Shield in Middle Ridge is there because their Sources are being punished for misdeeds. And there are no catastrophes in Middle Ridge at all, it's what is known as a "cold site", so the Pairs are essentially useless, and they know it. But there is something very strange going on in Middle Ridge, and Lee knows it. Can she discover what is going on in the town, and find Taro and whoever has him imprisoned? Or will her very inexperience be the end of her at the hands of someone completely and utterly ruthless, who has no compunction about killing anyone who opposes them?
I got into this series with the third book, Heroes Adrift, and I enjoyed it, so I also enjoyed seeing how they came together and their first assignment together. I found myself liking this book intensely- the style was easy to read, and there was a lot of story that was packed into the pages. Because the two characters never get to share their pasts at the beginning of the book, a lot happens before both stories come out. And Lee, even though she is the viewpoint character, kind of suffers in the character department compared to her partner, Shintaro.
After having read several books in the series, it's become quite clear that Lee's judgement isn't the best, and it's because of her background. Her discovery as a Shield came quite young, at only four, and aside from having to leave her family, she experienced no real upset because of her nature as a Shield and the sheltered quality of her schooling. Whereas Taro's talent wasn't discovered until quite late, and his family thought him mad for most of his life, so suffice to say he had an extremely sucky life. His mask of gaiety and charm masks his true self and is part of his determination to be as little like the family that abused him as possible.
I also loved the story and how it built from the beginning so slowly that the twists and turns of the plot aren't seen coming until they are actually upon you. While I didn't share Lee's dismay at the revelation of the traitors, I found the idea that the powers that Sources and Shields can control aren't completely as even the Triple S believes they are to be intriguing. So much foundation is laid in this novel, and yet it's pretty much invisible until later novels in the series, yet at the same time, it's so well done that you don't realize it, as it just seems part of the story.
I loved this novel, and I find myself loving the series very much. Lee and Taro are interesting characters. Both can seem annoying, and each definitely rubs each other the wrong way on occasion, but you can see how the mannerisms of each could be incredibly annoying and not just to each other. By the end, each has learned that the other is deeper and better than they first believed, and the ending brings a smile to your face. Highly recommended.