A mighty book in many ways. Long, yes, all 687 ages of it. Complex in depth and far-reaching in scope this is still Inda's story but the other characters aren't forgotten and we spend a lot of this book seeing Inda through other eyes.. When Inda returns home from the sea to warn his once best friend and now king, Evred, of an impending attack by the Venn he's accompanied by shipmates, the beautiful Tau and his (to her own thinking) plain lover Jeje and Inda's own lover the much older Venn mage, Signi.
Though there is grief when Inda learns his older brother has been murdered in his absence and his father has faded to the status of a cabbage, Inda finally gets his heart's desire. His exile is ended, his trumped up crime of eight or nine years ago is forgotten and his trusted friends are all happy to see him back, especially Evred who almost immediately makes Inda his war-leader. Lest that seem a little overly convenient for Inda's advancement, all the experienced war leaders have already been eliminated in a 'night-of-the-long-knives' coup and counter-coup in the previous book, The Fox. Inda, known for having 'plans' in his academy days, and always being capable of seeing the bigger picture in any military engagement, has shown he can lead a fleet to victory at sea. Now all he has to do is relearn the art of fighting on land.
So Inda comes home in time to put his best friends into the worst jeopardy of their lives, with the Venn invasion force already waiting to land an army of thousands and a long march through the Andahi pass to command the high ground first in the coming battle. Inda's learning curve is as steep and rocky as the sides of the pass, but Evred was right to put his trust in him even though the cost is great.
The human stories are intertwined with the military one: Evred's secret passion for Inda, recognised only by Tau and by Tdor, Inda's future wife; Tdor's anxiety about Inda's lover, Signi, and how her presence will affect their arranged marriage; Inda's ongoing nightmares from previous traumas; Jeje's inferiority complex which causes her to leave before Tau can get tired of her; Tau's sense of loss over Jeje because though he's had many lovers, so few of them have been friends as well. There are new characters: the doomed defenders of Castle Andahi and their children, sent to the mountains for safety, struggling to survive. We see the academy boys from the first book, Inda, now grown to men and fulfilling their promise - or not. Special mention for the beautifully drawn cameo of Noddy Toraca, somewhat goofy and turtle-like as a child, but now strong and steady, already a father, and questioning the sense of war while giving everything when asked. There's a human cost of war, not just in the dead, but the maimed as well. Inda and his chums were children in the first book. The idea of war was an exciting adventure, a war game. Now they are men, and war is no longer a game.
There is much to admire in Sherwood Smith's writing. The worldbuilding is completely believable and within the context of fiction, totally real. The characterisation is excellent. She makes you care about all of them, even the annoying ones. The plot is never predictable, the pace always page-turning. After three mammoth books what can be left in Inda's life to write about? He's already achieved the pinnacle of success. But there is another book, Treason's Shore, and I'm having to stop myself from dashing off to start reading. I have some work to do first...