Moving straight on from one book in a series to the next is a matter of both pleasure and trepidation. The pleasure comes from meeting old friends again in a familiar setting - another whole book about Shehaios! But it's a nervous moment too. Will it be different? Will things get worse? Or possibly much worse? Will some of those old friends, who survived against the odds last time, meet a different fate this time round?
Rule starts by recapping the previous book. First, by a brief overview, then by another look at the dramatic finale from a different point of view, and finally, by some background exposition. It's difficult to do this sort of thing well. I would love it if authors would take the Tolkien route, and put all the backstory in an introduction - it works for those who've read the book as well as newcomers - but it's old-fashioned, I suppose. Some authors sprinkle snippets throughout the book, some just expect you to remember and some (as here) spread it thickly upfront, which gets a bit heavy. Too much exposition too soon weighs down the book's opening, but Rule just about gets away with it.
I suppose after the dramatic turn of events at the end of the previous book, and this being the middle book of a trilogy, it was inevitable that this one should spiral straight into a miserable state of affairs. All the characters are in difficulties, and sliding into hopelessness. Things feel fairly hopeless to the reader too. The naive Shaihen are pinned down under the heavy hand of the Imperial army, there are barbarous raiders along the borders and the Emperor has decreed that everyone must conform to his own choice of religion. Nice King Rainur is dead, and Kierce the magician is paying a high price for his own mistakes. A very high price - some scenes are quite horrifying to read.
One has to hope that the old adage holds true: things have to get worse before they can get better. But this is a lot worse, and for most of the book everything that can go wrong does. I have to say, there were places where I hesitated to turn the page, fearing the next outbreak of awfulness. It was all perfectly logical, following on from earlier events or resulting from the characters' own nature and decisions, but still, I don't much enjoy this kind of relentless grimness, it's not why I read fantasy. I don't like Bombadil-esque tweeness either, but I do look for something with just a hint of upbeatness about it. Fortunately, towards the end of the book things start to look up a little, and there are hints that expectations and ambitions are becoming more realistic, and the Shaihen may be able to make an accommodation with the occupying Imperial forces.
One of the main themes of this book, made more explicit than in the previous episode, is the difference between the Shaihen hippy-dippy spirit-of-the-people tolerance, the irrational violence of the ascaii raiders and the fanatical, if illogical and hypocritical, followers of Tay-Aien (a rather sensible sounding religion underneath, interpreted somewhat flexibly by its adherents). I feel the author draws all the various factions in extreme black and white, in order to underscore the good and bad points, and it comes across as rather heavy handed. I would have liked a little more grey on all sides, instead of what appears to be a simplistic Shaihen-good, others-bad dichotomy.
Nevertheless, the fairly basic magic system (the Lord High Magician, Kierce, has the power to read and manipulate minds, and thus create illusions) is used to excellent effect here. We saw a little of this in the first book, when Kierce finds nothing but incoherent fear and ignorance in ascaii Orlii's mind, and now this is multiplied manyfold when he mingles with the greater numbers of raiders. It's a very effective technique, putting the reader literally into the mind of various characters, and Kierce's disintegration is beautifully drawn and very believable and sad. Kierce's magic is a little convenient sometimes - it also allows him to heal potentially fatal injuries, and also to swap bodies, thereby leaping from place to place, neither of which seem to be quite consistent with the basic premise, but never mind. It allows the brilliant manipulation of Ravir, which creates some electrifying moments.
This book wasn't as enjoyable as the first, mainly because of the catalogue of downright depressing events which fills the first three quarters of it, and a somewhat darker, more edgy, tone. The plot isn't quite as absorbing, to me anyway, but it is still exceptionally well thought out, and the main characters, Kierce and Caras, and perhaps Cathva, become much more complex over the course of the book. I was less sure about the developments regarding Elani and Madred, which seemed a bit contrived, and the ending, especially the rather too simple and romantic resolution of Aruath's problem, didn't quite ring true. I'm not sure what to make of Aruanth. He has potential but I will reserve judgment until I have read the third book. Overall, very slightly disappointing compared to the first book, but middle books are often thus. Four stars.