[Edited after reread; additional comments below.]
This is the third of a six-part series of connected stories set in the same world, which can supposedly all be read independently. It's true that the author sketches in the backstory at appropriate places, but still the books work much better if you read them in sequence.
The same main characters appear - Hadrian and Royce the hired thieves, now working exclusively for the Melengar kingdom, Arista the princess and Esrahaddon the thousand-year-old wizard - and Thrace from the last story is now the puppet Empress. The plot this time is exclusively political - the church is absorbing as many kingdoms as it can into its newly recreated empire, while Melengar in the north and the Nationalists in the south try to resist them, which makes for a much simpler storyline.
Somehow, this works much better than the nonsensical plots of the first two books, becoming a straightforward and dramatic race to implement a high-risk strategy to defeat the empire's army. This time we are not overwhelmed with history, the supporting characters are far less cardboard and the pacing is excellent. The main characters are all developing nicely, too, especially Arista, and the magic in this book is beautifully done.
There were no wonderful magical places, like the wizard's prison from the first book, or the elven tower from the second, but that is a very minor quibble. I felt the writing achieved new heights in this book too, with a much better tone, greater depth and no jarring anachronisms or Americanisms, although the author still hasn't discovered the past perfect tense, but never mind. And there's even a hint of romantic tension for the first time, and a good sprinkling of humour. Overall, a great improvement, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
[Additional comments after rereading:]
I don't really have a lot to add to my previous review. This one felt like a more rational plot, more relevant to the over-arching story, and for the first time some real depth to the characters, especially Hadrian and Royce, whose backstories are partially revealed. Some of this was a little heavy-handed, particularly Royce's interaction with the Ratibor street urchin. Yes, we get it, the urchin is Royce, several years ago.
As in 'Avempartha', the women feel fairly caricatured. Thrace/Modina is effectively unconscious again for much of the book, Amilia is put in a nurturing role and Arista is still mostly the helpless baggage carted around by the men, or thrust into danger in order to be rescued, although at least she is beginning to develop some initiative (mind you, the transformation from helpless to rebellion-leader is not really believable). I understand what Sullivan is trying to do here, and I applaud his attempts to create strong female characters. It's just a pity that his method of doing that is to force them into a starting point where they are completely helpless or stupid or catatonic. Yes, they will grow over the course of the series, but since they start at rock bottom, that's not hard to achieve.
But still, a good read, the story easy enough to follow, and anything tricky explained a page or two further on. A little predictable, maybe, and simplistic in places, but then it's intended as entertainment so it would be churlish to complain about that. I'll stick with four stars.
[First read May 2011]