And so on to the final part of the 'Shaihen Heritage' trilogy. I am rather at a loss as to where the story is going at this point. The second book seemed to tie up a lot of loose ends with neat little bows, leaving a more or less stable situation, and there isn't an obvious big threat looming on the horizon. In addition, the most interesting character by far in the first two books was the mercurial Kierce, whereas the focus this time is a quartet of blank-slate characters - the painfully naive priest Aruath, the new king Sheldo, Caras's daughter Alsareth, and the son of a merescaii nobleman, Qintal. None of them enthuse me particularly.
The story is quite slow to get going this time. Book 2 opened with a major crisis, and everyone scrambling to react, but this one opens 10 years later, so there's a fair bit of backstory to be filled in, as well as several characters to be established, so it feels very leisurely. This is not necessarily a problem, but given the lack of an obvious threat, it seems a little like ambling around just passing the time until something happens. Qintal's sojourn in the southernmost reaches of the empire is a nice little look at some more of the world, but it doesn't appear to have a clear (plot-related) purpose, beyond establishing his character.
I am a little surprised at some of the distances involved. Qintal's journey to the southern outpost takes several months at sea, followed by 200 days by land - that's more than a year of travel. Assuming months and years are the same in this world, that's a very, very long journey. Yet from there Garro gets to Qivor and back in a couple of months, and Qintal gets himself back in a very timely fashion. I'm not quite clear where Qivor is, but I thought it was further north than that suggests, although later in the book it's proposed that a ship would sail down the east coast to reach Shehaios. Very odd. A bigger map might have helped. On the other hand, Alsareth is able to magically swap bodies to effectively teleport herself from Qivor to the minstrels' holding in Shehaios, just to spend the night with her lover. What a convenient plot device.
Fortunately it's not long before the fragile peace begins to crack, and all hell breaks loose. I'm not sure why it is, but this book is not quite as absorbing as the previous two. I find it much easier to set aside for a while. This is partly because it's set in Qivor, which I find much less interesting than Shehaios. It's just another city, and there's not much effort to paint in the backdrop, so it feels rather a nothingy sort of place. I'd like to know a bit more about it - the architecture, the street life, the way the inhabitants live, but there's not a lot to go on. Then there's the fact that most of the familiar faces from the first two books are either absent or very much in the background, apart from Caras, who was never my favourite anyway.
The main problem is Alsareth. I applaud the author for addressing the issue of a female magician, but she really is a dull character, too dull to sustain the story. She dithers and drifts, and then is irresistibly drawn to the enemy after a single glance (oh dear), after which she interferes with her father's sensible course of action because she's in lurve (oh dear, oh dear, oh dear). I'd like to slap her, but I don't think it would do any good. She's hopeless. Now, it turns out that she does have a cunning plan to convert the arrogant and fanatical Qintal to Shaihen values, but how much of this is devious political manoeuvring and how much is motivated by self-interest and lurve is unclear to me. I just don't like her much. Some of her interactions with Qintal had a certain spark, but beyond that she seemed rather flat. I felt that as the magician, she should be living in Shehaios instead of tinkering in her father's political world. Ditto Sheldo (who is the king, after all). In fact, I'm not quite sure why anyone from Shehaios is in Qivor (apart from Caras). Qintal himself turns out to be a much more interesting character, and the clash of cultures when the arrogant merescaii warrior strides into Shehaios is the best part of the book. More Shehaios and more Qintal would have improved things no end.
It's not that this is a bad book, at all. It is just the comparison with the first two that makes it seem weak. The first book had a light, fey touch (with dragons, unicorns and a phoenix), a terrific plot and lots of humour. The second book was much darker, but everything followed logically and the disintegration of the charismatic Kierce was fascinating. This book feels more lightweight. The setting is less interesting, the characters are mostly rather dull and the plot, while having a fair amount of action, feels trivial - tribal unrest in an Imperial city doesn't compare with a people fighting overwhelming odds in a desperate battle to keep themselves and their culture alive. We are on the wrong side now, as it were - this story is mostly told from the Imperial side, and we never quite develop the same sympathy for the downtrodden ascaii or the angry merescaii.
Even the magic is more perfunctory here, merely a convenient plot device. It is rather cool that Alsareth's magic is different from Kierce's - that seems logical to me - and I like that she sees people in colours, which explains why she's drawn to the passionate Qintal, whose energy transforms into particularly vivid colours. But the haziness of her ability to read minds also gives her less clarity as a character - she too is slightly fuzzy and wishy-washy. I am not at all clear why Kierce gave his cloak to Aruanth and his staff to Sheldo - maybe I missed something, but I didn't notice either an explanation or a purpose for this. Either way, this too would tend to diminish Alsareth's ability, I would have thought.
To be honest, the first two books worked very well as a duology. This one feels as if it was bolted on afterwards simply in order to tie up a loose end or two. I understand that there is a further trilogy in the pipeline, set many centuries after these events, so it may be that some of this book is actually setup for the later works - Aruath, in particular, may be important in some way, as the epilogue hints. Nevertheless, this is a perfectly readable story, and is, in many ways, very well crafted, with a number of events and characters from the earlier books turning out to be significant here. The author is brilliant at carrying these many threads from book to book. And the humour is back. I am torn between three and four stars, but I'll be generous.