This is the first of a proposed quintet ('The Dagger and the Coin'), and is the author's first foray into what might be termed mainstream fantasy, after the critically applauded but unconventional 'The Long Price Quartet'. The dagger of the series title represents war, while the coin is economics - the twin approaches to conquest, or defence against it.
The story centres around four main characters: Cithrin, a girl who is a ward of the Medean bank, shortly to achieve independence; Marcus, an experienced soldier; Geder, a low-ranking nobleman with a liking for speculative writings; and Dawson, a middle-aged nobleman with political tendencies. The plot jumps from one named POV to another.
I found the book slow to get into at first, but that is common with many fantasy novels, and this was easier to follow than many. But after a few chapters everything seemed to click into place, and the story picked up speed. It is still distracting, however, to hop around from one POV (and plot thread) to another - just as you get interested in one part of the story you are whisked off somewhere else, perhaps less interesting. And some parts are definitely less interesting - Dawson, for instance. I much prefer not to know who the POV is in each chapter. It makes it much easier to stop reading, and harder to pick up again, if you think - 'Hmm, another Dawson chapter...'.
It was hard to keep track of the politicking that went on in Camnipol, in Antea. The different factions and motives were not easy to follow, and it felt sometimes as if there was a whole subtext that I just failed to get. I had a similar problem with the economics sub-plot in Porte Oliva, but this worried me less. I just assumed that if I took the trouble to work it out, it would probably make sense.
The four main characters build quite nicely in depth as the book progresses. Geder, in particular, is a fascinating character, and while his actions may seem horrifying they are always entirely understandable and (in some sense) justified. His means of dealing with Vanai is a perfectly sensible solution to an economic problem, after all - what else is one supposed to do with an unprofitable vanquished city? Master Kit, of course, is clearly going to be significant somewhere down the line. Marcus and Yardem have a terrific relationship, and Cithrin is more complex than she appeared at first sight. It is refreshing to meet a female protagonist who is pragmatic about sex, and responds to setbacks by taking to her bed with as much booze as she can get her hands on and staying there until it's gone. Even Dawson, for all his faults, raises a certain sympathy and his wife Clara is interesting too.
The world-building is not spectacular so far. It is yet another post-dragon, post-magic (more or less) world. The cities have interesting individual quirks, but the countryside in between seems pretty empty. The jade roads are intriguing, and the 12 created races are fascinating. At the moment they are merely ciphers, but presumably the differences will become important later. In particular, I suspect the Drowned will be crucial to something.
The plot rounds off with a flourish. The ending for Geder is, in retrospect, predictable but I failed to read the signs. On the other hand, the outcome for Cithrin is totally predictable and therefore dull. And the big reveal in the 'Entr'acte' was surely spotted by everyone long before. In summary, not earth shattering but a good and promising start to the series.
[Edited after a reread May 2013] Having just read the third book in the series, 'The Tyrant's Law', I was disinclined to start reading anything new or different or (frankly) inferior. So I started all over again with book 1, and given that I hardly ever reread anything (so many books, so little time) this is a Big Deal.
What strikes me most is how well this reads for a little extra understanding. It's not just knowing which characters will be important, recognising names of places and the foreshadowing of events, but so many scenes are perceived entirely differently because of understanding the full implications of the prologue (the identity of the apostate, the peculiar nature of his ability and the way he deals with that). There's a lot of history, too, which makes far more sense when viewed from a couple of books further on. There are bits and pieces which whizzed by me previously: the prejudice against non-First-Blood races, for instance, which jumps out at me now.
The characters still fall into their original stances: Geder is fascinating, Cithrin is whiny and childish, but most of the time I like her, Marcus is still the laconic cynical ex-warrior with a tragic personal story (but I kinda like that trope) and Dawson is - yes, Dawson is still irritating and prejudiced and insufferably stuck in rigid protocol. I still don't understand the whole plot business in Camnipol. How is it that Dawson and Issandrian were both penalised, when one of them stirred up an armed rebellion against the throne and the other ensured it failed? How does that work?
But still - great book, a brilliantly devised if controversial character (Geder) and that huge whoa! moment at Vanai. And I still love the way that Geder simply reverses into success in his clumsy, half-arsed badly-thought-out way. He’s almost a sympathetic character, with his oddly not-quite-one-of-us ways, always trying to please, always falling short, a disappointment to his father and the butt of everyone else’s jokes. Terrific stuff. The plot is still half-formed at this point, but the characters just glow with life.