A stand-alone set in the same world as the author’s The First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold (2009), this down-in-the-mud military epic may call itself a fantasy, but it reads more like a bracing blast of cruel reality.
The King of the Union seeks the overthrow of Black Dow, the uncouth warlord who calls himself the Protector of the North, which sets the doughty but fractious fighters of the North against the more sophisticated and numerous army of the Union. Over the course of three days, well-meaning but incompetent generals, bloodthirsty thugs, vengeful magi, scheming princes and military wives, cynical veterans and painfully naïve recruits engage in bitter clashes in an attempt to seize the hill bearing the standing stones known as the Heroes. The plot is almost incidental, a mere vehicle to convey the author’s gritty, eloquent screed on how war is no neatly ordered chessboard; rather, it is a messy series of blundered encounters, where cowardice and mismanagement meet happenstance and bloodlust. Brave warriors die pointlessly, and those with the connections, luck and ability to turn up at the right time are dubbed heroes.
Long on message and nuanced character development, short on entertainment value.