Book 1 had a great deal of promise, so I was looking forward to the second installment. This too has an excellent opener - in fact, the same opener, just seen from a different perspective. This is fascinating, and immediately answers two questions raised by the previous book - now we know what happened to Adair, and yes, this really is a case of parallel or alternate worlds, with the secret temple at sea acting as some kind of portal. And the cliffhanger from Book One is resolved straight away, too - Kael survived, although there is no indication of how.
Then it's back to Bastul, where we are immediately plunged into a story more action-packed and fast paced than its predecessor. The city (and in fact the whole Orudan Empire) is under attack from the barbarian Syvaku, for reasons unknown, and is soon destroyed, while Lemus meets an appropriate end. Maeryn is forced to become a leader to the freed slaves, while also protecting her now grown daughter Aelia. Kael joins forces with retreating soldier Dacien, using the skills he learned from his life in the monastery.
As the two groups, Maeryn's slaves and Kael's soldiers, traverse the countryside, we get to see some more of the author's created world. Like many other fantasy writers, his world seems to be peculiarly empty, with just a few widely scattered cities, and virtually no other signs of life, particularly farms, until we get to Orud, the capital.
After such a good opening, the middle section was a huge disappointment. A great deal happens to Maeryn and Kael, but somehow it is made to seem dull. The details of how Kael survived and what happened to him afterwards make a terrific story, but we hear it only in flashback during a journey more than halfway through the book. The plot is actually rather good, but the writing style serves to distance the reader. There's far too much that we are simply told, so that, however dramatic the story, it's not in the least emotionally involving. Maeryn's story, in particular, is incredibly flat - she goes to Orud, she gets everything she wants, she and her daughter are given a home, treated as favourites by Magnus, she begins to have feelings for him - but none of this is remotely engaging. We are never given a reason why Magnus is so solicitous.
None of the characters are particularly interesting - or particularly believable, come to that. I really don't care about any of them. Maeryn has been through some trying experiences, but we get no real sense of suffering. Aelia serves no useful purpose. Kael is a little too good a warrior. Magnus is too oily. Saba is certainly interesting, but we don't see enough of him. Dacien - well, I do find him interesting, but he's far too willing to be nice to Kael, given his suspicions of him, so he seems like just a plot device.
Another problem is that numerous characters from the past turn up without much to remind the reader who they are. Some of them I thought were dead! If a (relatively minor) character from book 1 turns up two thirds of the way through book 2 at a dramatic moment, we need some help to remember them, otherwise it's just confusing.
The end becomes quite dramatic, with some nice twists. I'm not sure that it totally makes sense (an appointed emperor? who frees slaves in order to create an army??), but it still kept me turning the pages. The plot is still excellent, but the characters simply don't shine.
After the promise of book 1, this was a real let down. I will probably read the third book, partly because I've already bought it, and partly because the portal to the present day earth is such an intriguing one and I want to know what happens to Adair. But beyond that, my interest is practically non-existent. Two stars. [First written June 2011]