Alaric, the minstrel, travels from place to place playing his lute for both rich and poor in exchange for a meal and shelter. Between places he hunts wildlife for his meals. Alaric has a fancy to see the Great Northern Sea and so has headed in that direction traveling over mountains as the climate becomes colder and harsher. Then he stumbles upon a fertile valley where there is a small cluster of farms and a castle. He learns that this is the abode of the Red Lord, a strangely taciturn figure who rules over an equally mysterious people. Alaric is at first welcomed and treated well by the Red Lord. Soon, however, Alaric becomes aware of strange goings on in the castle and his welcome wears thin.
This is a fantasy story set in a world similar to our own, but not identical. Most travelers in the north of Europe, for example, would have great difficulty in understanding the many different languages and dialects that they encountered. The story has a medieval feeling, but any historian would tell you that this is more literary invention than real history. Castles, for example, were more the exception than the rule. Like any fantasy story there is magic, but on this point Eisenstein has taken an unusual tack. There are, for example, natural born psychic powers that could be described as 'magic', herbalism and other proto-sciences that seem like 'magic' to the uneducated mind, and ritualistic mumbo jumbo that impresses the gullible. Alaric takes a surprisingly modern view of magic, viewing most of it with considerable skepticism, until the facts seem to prove otherwise.
Most of all this is a book about the aching need to find a place to belong. For this reason it will especially appeal to teenagers, but I think we all can sympathize to some degree. We never totally loose our sense of being individuals, and thus different and cut off from others. Like the Romantics (Rousseau), Alaric wonders whether the answer to his loneliness lies in a reversion to primitivism. Will he find acceptance among the herdsmen of the North?
If I have one criticism it is that the title implies that the Red Lord will be very prominent in the tale, but in fact this is not totally true. I spent much of my time wondering: "When will we get back to the Red Lord?" The text does eventually get there, but only after a long and winding mid-section.
This book is the sequel to Born to Exile, which has similar themes, but this book takes the discussion deeper and is different enough not to be a complete repeat. The story does not refer greatly to the first novel and could be enjoyed quite happily without reading the first book.