Well, this book had two strikes against it when I started: it was the first in a trilogy and it dealt with twelve fiefdoms. TWELVE! I thought that was just too many for me to keep them straight, but it sounded so promising I went ahead and delved in. I'm glad I did because Shinn did a great job in giving the book a natural ending and easing me into the complicated world.
The book is about a group of five people who are on a mission for the king. He wants them to feel out the mood and politics of the people. He believes there's trouble brewing and wants a first-hand account from people he trusts.
The group intially consists of three Mystics and two Riders. Mystics are people with a varying range of magical powers. Some can shape-shift, some can heal, some are extra sensitive. Two of the mystics are shape-shifters, and Senneth, the heroine, can command fire. Riders are the king's special guards. They're the best fighters in the kingdom and their first loyalty is to the king.
The story starts with a fun rescue of an indentured servant who turns out to be mystic. The group doesn't want to abandon him, so he accompanies them on their trip. As they travel from one fiefdom to another, Shinn fed me managable bits of information about the geography and the important players.
The mood is a bit grim, though, because they discover that a fanatical religion has taken hold in many areas. This religion has attracted hordes of adherents, both women and men. The men have been formed into a formidable army that single-mindedly searches the countryside to kill all the mystics they find. Coincidentally, this horde of fanatics is headed by the sister of the man who wants to be the next king, either naturally or by waging war against the current king.
This book is a road-trip book with lots of disguises, adventure, and hair-breadth escapes. As they lurch from one difficult situation to another, the distrust and animostiy between the Riders and Mystics turns to grudging acceptance, then to admiration and friendship.
I generally like Shinn's heroes better than her heroines, but in this book it's the reverse. The heroine is strong, incredibly capable, and yet so vulnerable as we discover her sad past (I did easily guess part of her past). The hero started as a bit of a narrow-minded jerk but did get better as the book went along. I do think that as the king's First Rider, he should have known much more; he should have been more aware of politics, the main players, their allegiances, and the inter-relatedness of their families. But other than that minor criticism, I liked the book and would recommend it.--Edith (31 Mar 05)