If you're a fan of George R.R. Martin - definitely, DEFINITELY pick this book up and read it. It's a richly detailed epic prelude to war, which is a topic I haven't run across much in high fantasy. Wars, yes, and the aftermath I've read quite a bit on, but not much on the months and events before the bloodshed. Set in a Renaissance European world like much of high fantasy, with knights and Emperors, but with one key difference - guns. Still pre-Industrial Revolution, mind, but guns are present and used (always second to a sword or an axe, so many times you forget they're there). The plot itself focuses around three main areas of interest - Rurick, the disgraced son of Matair house, and his Company of Eagles; The aging Emperor's House and it's internal struggles, and the Cullick Family, determined to bring it all down.
I very much enjoyed reading this book, and the last 150 pages were so gripping I was desperate have book two in hand so I could continue reading. The story builds slowly, as I believe high fantasy should, because world-building is the bedrock of a good story. There's a languid sensuality about the beginning of the book, not in literal terms, but with the style of writing and the pace of the story telling. Galford takes his time setting the stage, and that's wonderful. Like G.R.R.M., Galford jumps from character POV to POV, and Galford's grasp of personal voice in this is exceptional. His writing style adapts to the way his characters think, organically. This can make jumping between POV's a little confusing, but once you're used to the character's voices, it adds a depth to the book that I really enjoyed. The slow start didn't both me, but it did take a bit for me to wrap my head around "where I was" in the story; that is, the world, the people, the geography, economics, religion and politics - I'm a reader deeply invested in the world an author creates, so I couldn't get enough of the details - to me, plot is always second to a richly dressed and painted world.
I'll be honest, the middle of the book, where one of the sons and heir to the Empire was introduced - I lost interest, for the sole reason that I didn't have the heart to learn a new character! But I pushed through my laziness, and was rewarded with some of the best political intrigue I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Every reader has their favorite and least favorite characters, and I deeply enjoyed reading Essa's perspective, I think because I identified with her in a way, and wish I could have more details on Chigenda and Alviss' stories and perspectives. I find them both the be fascinating enigmas - but that's the anthropologist in me! Charlotte, on the other hand, drove me up a wall. She's Cersei Lannister, without the badassery and more frippery. And Usuri... everyone loves a good witch character, especially when she's coming unhinged - but her magic works in a very unique way. The domesticated griffons make me sad, like deeply, deeply sad. There were a few small twists that made me gasp, and I won't ruin them for you - but you definitely need to pay attention to what you're reading, because Galford drops details and foreshadows so deviously that if you aren't vigilant, you'll miss them.
Now - why four instead of five stars? I reserve my five-star ratings for books that grab me heart and mind only about 5% of the books I read grip my imagination - this book is gorgeous, but not one of that five percent. I do still highly recommend it, though!
I also didn't realize there was a map until I finished the book. So of course I felt like an idiot, because that would have helped my scattery mind understand where people were. But this book has a life of its own - a world of its own - and it breathes life. I missed details on my first read, and I can't wait to go back and read it again.