The premise here is that Carleon, a former imperial soldier, has turned rebel for some reason (explained later in the book), and is training up a motley collection of disaffected soldiers, criminals and peasants to fight. Amongst the latter is Danario, whose village was razed to the ground by the imperial army for helping the rebels. I have problems with this right from the start. Firstly, the main character is not merely rebellious, but, given that his objective is to overthrow the rightful government, he’s treasonous, too. Plus he uses torture to extract information. Normally this would make him a villain. His wife was killed by the imperialists, but that seems to be after his rebellion, so it’s not really motivation. And frankly, he seems fairly stupid, constantly walking into difficult situations and then being surprised when people get killed, or the mission fails. Taking on a large, well-trained, well-funded army needs (surprise!) another army, at least as large. Danario, on the other hand, is more believable. He no longer has a home or family, so joining the rebel cause seems like a reasonable step. His meeting with the princess seems incredibly unlikely to me, but there you go, this is fantasy, incredible things happen.
The writing is quirky. Hair colour is ‘argent’ or ‘sterling’, port is ‘velvet-colored’, a pine marten is ‘cinnamon-furred’, eyes are ‘amaranthine’. Each time I encounter something like this, I have to stop and work out what it means. And velvet coloured port? Velvet might be port coloured, but the opposite makes little sense. Every chapter is a separate episode, disconnected from the ones before and after. Even when a chapter ends on a dramatic cliff-hanger, turning the page means a big jump and the outcome explained in flashback. This makes the book feel very disjointed. Invented words are used without explanation (or else I missed it). I never quite got the meaning of ‘namhai’, for instance, and ‘akhai’ seemed to have two different meanings, which was confusing. And what exactly is a ‘derthai’? A really solid edit would help to smooth away the oddities.
Having said all that, it’s still a very readable book, if short, and I kept turning the pages to find out what happens. And then I came to the ending. Oh. My. God. Courageous is the word that springs to mind. And also realistic, because this really is what happens to rebellions. Kudos to the author for having the guts to follow through with his ideas to the bitter end and not fudge the bleakness of it. But still – I’d advise having a supply of strong liquor to hand when reading it. There’s a good story in here, but the short format and writing quirks tend to obscure it until the last few chapters. At that point, though, it becomes a thought-provoking if depressing read. Recommended for anyone who thought George R R Martin’s writing was way too upbeat and cheerful. Three stars.