An unengaging, unmagical fantasy set in the land of Cherek--home to a sexually egalitarian, neo-feudal jumble of peasants, lords, and guilds. (They've recently invented the steam engine, the telegraph, and other labor-saving devices, yet still believe their world to be the center of the universe.) Now, in the frigid winter, vile dictator lord Gambin lies at Jentesi castle dying slowly and painfully, while foolishly refusing to name his successor lest a power struggle ensue. So when bad-tempered protagonist Lyeth, Gambin's sworn Rider (messenger), dutifully arrives with prickly orphan Emris in tow, she's soon drawn into the confused spying, plotting, and squabbling of the repellent heirs--Culdyn, Coreon, Maranta, and Syne. Much later, the Riders' guildmaster is murdered, putting Lyeth in danger and obliging her to investigate. And eventually she discovers Culdyn conspiring with Syne to murder Coreon, a revelation that inspires Gambin to name Emris (who turns out to be his grandson) his successor. Unfortunately, Randall (Islands, Journey) doesn't really provide enough information for readers to follow the ins and outs of all this; so the unappealing cast and the largely inert narrative combine to produce an effortful, often-mindless-seeming performance.