My favorite novel, ever. I like this book so much, despite its flaws. At first it seems a bit earnest, boy scout-ish. When it first appeared in 1990 it received a bad review in Locus, for, among other things, having characters who were too stupid to be believable. It has about as few female characters as Lord of the Rings. Although it has a central character, he is one of the more shy and retiring members of a group of adventurers dominated by loud, proud types, and he seems almost invisible at times. In fact it is one of the most 'group-minded' books I have come across. (The other central character is a young woman, who grows increasingly important as the book progresses.) The sense of the quest being bigger than any individual, with new members joining as old members died or were forced to drop out, is very inspiring.
The landscape and the world depicted is fabulous, feels real. A magic-haunted seacoast, downs modelled on the North Yorkshire Downs, a vast trackless forest like the Siberian taiga, Ice Age-era grasslands, and a swiss-style mountain kingdom. Of the various races, goblins are treating surprisingly sympathetically, whereas the grisly Rievers and Tarintarmen are hated by all life.
As the pages turn, the book turns darker, and the scale of the forces stacked against the heroes grows. There is magic, yes; but the evil is primarily a political one, being that the leaders of men are traitorously allying themselves with an ancient and cruel enemy, the prize being greater power and wealth - at the cost of complete mental and moral submission. It seems very unlike most other fantasy (honorable exceptions: the works of Hugh Cook, Ursula Le Guin, Glen Cook, Gene Wolfe, etc etc).
The sequel, The Tears of Ginara, was written but never published; Headline cancelled the series. Last I knew the author was living in Scarborough; I haven't been able to contact him in over 10 years. If he reads this - please selfpublish the rest of the series, on Lulu or similar.