Third of Duncan’s tales—or, rather, the third variation on the same theme—of the King’s Blades (Lord of the Fire Lands, 1999, etc). The Blades are expert swordsmen, bound by powerful magic to defend the person to whom they’re bound—usually, but not always, the monarch of Chivial. With the heir to the throne, three-year-old Amby, ailing, King Ambrose seeks to wed his mettlesome daughter Malinda to Radgar, King of Baelmark, and thus end the ruinous war between the two kingdoms. But when Radgar arrives in his longship to collect Malinda, he seizes the opportunity to assassinate Ambrose with a crossbow bolt. Malinda, protected by her blades, escapes, but the war continues, and Ambrose’s bastard brother, Granville, becomes Lord Protector. After young Amby duly dies, Granville captures Malinda and imprisons her on trumped-up charges. Months of interrogation and maltreatment later, Malinda’s rescued by her loyal Blades and flees for her life. Radgar too is dead, killed in a raid, and Chivial’s situation looks to be beyond recovery. Where, wonders Malinda, did it all go wrong? Ambrose was brutal and ruthless, but capable and commanding. What if—and here fans of the previous books will exclaim aha!—he hadn’t died?
An enormously clever and impressive reshuffle, whether you regard the final twist as a brilliantly contrived sleight or an outrageous swindle: for panache, style, and sheer storytelling audacity, Duncan has few peers.