[Edit after reread, below]
This is the second of a six-part series of connected stories set in the same world, but it reads well enough as a stand-alone, with just enough backstory to remind those who read the first book, without overloading the present story.
The lead characters (Hadrian and Royce) are the same, as is Arista, the sister to the abducted prince from book 1, and Esrahaddon, the thousand year old wizard, also has a starring role. The plot is similar nonsense - a village under attack from a strange monster, a magical elven tower which has to be entered, somehow, to retrieve a magic sword, as well as a scheme by the church to create another emperor. But somehow it is less entertaining than the first book, with too many side characters and a lack of anyone we can really believe in. The peasants, in particular, are poorly drawn, having not an ounce of common sense between them.
There is also a great deal of mythology thrown at us this time - some history of the elves and the last emperor and the heir - which is not uninteresting in itself, but it comes in such large chunks that it slows the action down drastically. But the elven tower (the Avempartha of the title) is beautifully described, and I suspect there will be more contact with the elves in future books.
The writing style can be irritating, with Americanisms like 'tarp' and 'bleachers' and 'font of wisdom', colloquialisms like 'glass half full', and silly typos like the 'sight' of a battle and 'ringing' out wet clothes. The author has also never been introduced to the pluperfect (or past perfect) tense - 'They had done such and such...'. These things are no big deal, and many readers will never notice them, but they cause those who do to drop abruptly out of the author's created world.
Having said all that, the book is still an enjoyable romp, easy enough to read without worrying too deeply about the twists and turns of the plot, and with a satisfying ending which also has a few intriguing loose ends to be explored in the rest of the series. And we learned a few interesting things about Hadrian and Royce too.
[Edit after reread]
After a nicely intriguing start, this one drops straight into all the things I disliked about it the first time round - unbelievable plot devices, lazy world-building, unconvincing characters and clunky dialogue. Thrace is particularly off-kilter. I can see what the author was aiming for, but (as with Myron) he has created a character whose total innocence of the wider world is simply not credible. Both Thrace and Arista, the two main female characters, come across as helpless creatures, simply being manipulated by other characters (Esrahaddon or Saldur), or else getting into trouble and needing rescue. Both women spend a considerable amount of time here either unconscious (Thrace) or a prisoner (both of them) or behaving stupidly (again, both of them), acting as motivation for the men. Ugh. Yes, I know things improve in later books, but still - ugh.
And the plot seems even sillier than the first time I read it. Even if you can buy into the peasants grubbing round in the mud, with a few pigs and goats and not much else (and it stretches credibility), why on earth would they sit around waiting to be taken by the dragon-like thingy? Even if they don't want to leave, why not build stone houses? Why not build a communal shelter where they can all sleep safely? Why not build an underground shelter? Just sitting in their (mostly wooden) houses waiting to be grabbed makes zero sense. And given the size of the uninhabited forest, there must be some other bit of it they could plough up, further away from the beastie.
But all that aside, the main feature of this book is the mysterious elven tower of Avempartha, and for me it was the star of the show. Firstly, the puzzle of getting into it, then Royce's awed wander through the interior and the really cool 'artistic visions' room - it was all terrific stuff. It was a pity we didn't get to 'see' some of the outcome of Esrahaddon's attempt to find the heir, which could have been done without revealing anything, but never mind. Also good: the river, Magnus the dwarf, Royce and Hadrian (of course), and Mauvin and Fanen, with an honourable mention for the bloke with the catapult thingy (a bit of initiative - wonderful!). I don't see any reason to change my three star rating, but nevertheless this is a good read (as long as you're not expecting great literature). [First read March 2011]