So finally I get to read this as part of the new world order, the six book series republished as a standard-issue trilogy. This and the final part, 'Percepliquis', comprise 'Heir of Novron' (after 'Theft of Swords' and 'Rise of Empire'). However, I'm going to review them separately, partly for completeness, to match the rest of my reviews, but mainly because I want to display the original covers. I much prefer the author's own artwork to the publisher's generic fantasy images (the cover for 'Avempartha' is quite the most beautiful I've ever seen).
This book suffers a little from being the fifth in the series. That makes for a lot of backstory to be explained, some of which is (inevitably) something of an info-dump, and everything has to be positioned for the final book. On the plus side, for the first time in the series, I get a sense of genuine depth - in relationships, and in situations. Gwen and Royce's love feels totally real, and Hadrian's dilemma with regard to Sir Breckton is particularly poignant, mirrored by Royce's situation later. I liked the idea that Saldur is doing all this to restore civilisation and get the roads fixed up (much better than a bad guy who is simply evil). And the ending is stunning. Not at all sure where this is going, but it doesn't look good.
The plot - well, it's the usual flimsy stuff, but it really doesn't matter. The author really knows how to pile on the pressure so that the pages just keep turning - that 'just one more chapter' syndrome. There are no exotic settings this time, which is a shame. Instead we get the tired old castle-with-dungeons backdrop, and the feasts and knightly tournaments, but although it's pretty silly it just about works. That's more than can be said for the characters, however. The nobility turn out to be just as one-dimensional as the peasants, sailors, thieves and all the other walk-on characters in previous books. And in all honesty, I have to say that romance is not the author's strongest suit. Apart from Gwen and Royce, who have had five books to develop a convincing relationship, the romantic pairings here are well short of being believable.
Rereading the previous four books while awaiting this one has highlighted for me the weakness of the female characters. Arista has veered from whiny aristocrat to unconvincing wizard to half-hearted rebel leader, while spending most of her time imprisoned or otherwise acting as motivation for men with swords to rescue her. Amilia may be the accidental saviour of the empress, but she mostly spends her time being bossed around by men while bemoaning her unworthiness, and falling for the first man who speaks kindly to her. Thrace/Modina had moments of self-reliance in 'Avempartha', although interspersed with running around screaming 'Daddy, Daddy!", since when she has been imprisoned and not entirely sane. Gwen was promising, having been a successful businesswoman and, when faced with the burning of her home town, managing to decamp to safety with all her employees and her furniture too, an impressive feat. But no, turns out she is only motivation for a man after all (with a side-order of plot device, being a seer). Shame. But I don't want to be churlish about this aspect of the books, because, after all, it's no more than many other authors do. There is still one more book to go, and therefore one more opportunity for some of the female characters to be more than passive to-be-rescued motivation or love interest for male characters.
Basically, I thoroughly enjoyed this. For all its shortcomings, it's a solid, entertaining, pacy read, with some moments of real pathos and a certain depth to some of the situations, while never getting too heavy. In places it felt a bit rushed, but that's better than being too slow. The comradeship between Royce and Hadrian is, as ever, the bedrock of the series, and I love the way they get each other out of trouble, no matter what. The dramatic about-turn at the eleventh hour was a bit of a stretch, but then did anyone really believe all the main characters were going to die? I don't think so. And a starring role for Esrahaddon's cloak? Brilliant! A solid four stars. And so on to 'Percepliquis'...
Some spoilery thoughts:
Magnus: what is it with the dwarf? Can he never do the right thing, just because - well, because it's right? And what's the deal with Royce's dagger?
Hadrian's dilemma: how like him to accept the deal and actually believe the other side would stick to it. Royce would have known better.
Esrahaddon's cloak: I have no idea whether the cloak is acting as an independent entity or has some essence of Esrahaddon guiding it, but I love its appearance here. I like the implication that it healed Thrace/Modina, thus making her very abrupt return to sanity and intelligent action totally believable.
The Gwen business: shocked by Royce's actions here, but everything was completely believable and in line with what's gone before. And who did fire that crossbow?