(2008) Fiona McIntosh, HarperCollins, £7.99, pbk, 456 pp, ISBN 978-0-007-27602-8
As the first book in a trilogy, it starts with an introduction in the midst of battle; a battle that King Ormond of Barronel is losing against his foe Loethar. Loethar is a man of the steppes who has united the individually small steppes into an army, which he is using to press forth into the Valisar Set. The Valisar Set being a group of approximately seven kingdoms ruled over by their own kings but who give fealty to the King of the largest kingdom, Penraven, a kingdom itself held by the Valisar family for eight generations, until now.
Loethar's objective is to conquer the entire Set in order to capture Penraven and kill the entire Valisar family, in the belief that the Valisar 'power' of coercion will pass to him. He is not interested in spoils or plunder: the fall of the other kingdoms, including Barronel, are just stepping-stones to this ultimate goal.
Once Barronel is down, Penraven is next. Knowing that Loethar will kill them all, and knowing that he is unlikely to be merciful, King Brennus orders the newborn daughter of his Queen Iselda smothered in an act of mercy, the first Valisar daughter born alive for several centuries. He also employs the offspring of his right-hand man, Legate De Vis, on two tasks. The first twin, Corbel, must smother the newborn princess, and then undertake a mysterious journey even he does not know the purpose of. The second twin, Gavriel he entrusts with his only natural-born son, Leonel: his mission is to get him away from Loethar to safety, so that he may come and regain his kingdom. The king's adopted son, Piven, who is mentally deficient and loves everybody, the King can do nothing about: as no real threat, he has to hope Loethar will allow Piven to live.
When Loethar takes the palace, he gives the queen to her former manservant, Freath, in exchange for his treachery against the royal Family after king Brennan kills himself. The adopted son Piven he finds amusing, and chooses to keep him as a pet. Gavriel and Leonel are hidden in secret tunnels within the castle, but cannot stay there without food. Their sense of urgency increases once Queen Iselda is killed: Loethar's main focus is now on finding and killing Leonel.
When maps drawn on the walls of the secret chamber lead them to the outside and potential freedom, they travel North based on overheard conversations, seeking an ally in the most unlikely of places. On the way they gain a travelling companion, encounter danger, and see incredible sights, culminating in the new King Leonel being given answers to some questions, new questions to answer, and unexpected revelations. Unbeknownst to him, his adopted brother Piven has been taken from the palace by a person unknown and for purposes unknown.
This book is slow to start and at first difficult to get into, but if you persevere, pieces of the puzzle fall into place, and by the time you get halfway through the book, the intrigue, magic and questions within the pages will draw you through to the end, at which point you will find yourself looking for the next book in the series to find out what happens.
If you can get into it, it is a highly enjoyable read.
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