A rousing addition (the fourth) to the series, of which the first three, concluded with Sky of Swords (2000), formed a logical but not sequential trilogy; this independent and self-contained entry takes place a dozen years hence. Sir Beaumont, the finest swordsman of all King Athelgar's Blades, will be bonded (magically compelled to defend to the death) with old, unprepossessing Lord Wassail, whose sole apparent virtue is his unswerving loyalty to King Athelgar. Joining Beau will be Sir Oak and Sir Arkell, an indication of the importance Athelgar attaches to Wassail's mission. Supposedly secret (but already common knowledge in Isilond, the neighboring territory they must pass through), Wassail's mission is to proceed from Chivial to the vast, remote, frigid land of Skyrria, ruled by its maniacal Czar, Igor (think Russia under Ivan the Terrible) and bring back Czarina Sophie's young and stunningly beautiful sister, Tasha, to be Athelgar's bride. It's a daunting task: Skyrria is barbaric and impoverished, Igor cunning and paranoid (he trusts only his huge, vicious, magically metamorphosed dogs, and employs his brutal, merciless militia to extort from the rich, repress the peasants, and harass everyone in between), and the climate pitiless. Worst of all, as the irrepressible Beaumont discovers, the real reason Igor agreed to the marriage was not trade deals or fabulous gifts—but to get his hands on a Blade and learn the secrets of his making.
Inventive, labyrinthine, witty, and thoroughly engaging: Duncan rarely disappoints, and here he outswashbuckles himself.