Guy in armor on a rearing horse.There are four books previous to this one in this series. I haven’t read any of them. In light of that I was a little worried when this came up on the list for this year’s Endeavour Award reading. But the book starts off with a 2-1/2 page “what has gone before” summary of the first four books! It’s a little astonishing that that’s possible, but it was enough of a name-packed info dump to demystify enough of the backstory references to make the book feel like a stand-alone.

The book focuses largely on the story of two sons of a king, one, Otter, from an ill-advised youthful liaison with a sorceress, the other, Aewyn, from his queen. A huge portion of what makes the book interesting is that the treatment of this relationship is so completely contrary to the usual cliches of the bastard son. The king openly loves both sons, the two sons are best friends, the queen loves both sons. So nice. Of course there has to be conflict somewhere and it comes from the church (a really unpleasantly puritanical not-Christianity) and from the mother of the illegitimate son. Or does it?

All the action is told from pretty close third person with very little revealed that isn’t clear to the characters themselves, so it’s ambiguous where the creeping menace comes from or if there even is a creeping menace.

The tone of the book is claustrophobic and a little scary. Cherryh accomplishes this primarily through conveying every single thought that goes through her characters’ heads. The problem with the book is that these characters (especially Otter) are obsessive worriers, turning the possibilities and options over in their minds endlessly and repetitively. It reads like realistic internal dialog, but it also reads like redundant page-filling and sloppy writing.

In the end, I enjoyed the book mostly for the characters and the growth they all go through in the course of the story, but I would have appreciated it if Cherryh’s editors had been able to hack out maybe a sixth of the word count.