This is the third of a six-part series of connected stories set in the same world, which can supposedly all be read independently. It's true that the author sketches in the backstory at appropriate places, but still they work much better if you read them in sequence.
The same main characters appear - Hadrian and Royce the hired thieves, now working exclusively for the Melengar kingdom, Arista the princess and Esrahaddon the thousand-year-old wizard - and Thrace from the last story is now the puppet Empress. The plot this time is exclusively political - the church is absorbing as many kingdoms as it can into its newly recreated empire, while Melengar in the north and the Nationalists in the south try to resist them, which makes for a much simpler storyline.
Somehow, this works much better than the nonsensical plots of the first two books, becoming a straightforward and dramatic race to implement a high-risk strategy to defeat the empire's army. This time we are not overwhelmed with history, the supporting characters are far less cardboard and the pacing is excellent. The main characters are all developing nicely, too, especially Arista, and the magic in this book is beautifully done.
There were no wonderful magical places, like the wizard's prison from the first book, or the elven tower from the second, but that is a very minor quibble. I felt the writing achieved new heights in this book too, with a much better tone, greater depth and no jarring anachronisms or Americanisms, although the author still hasn't discovered the past perfect tense, but never mind. And there's even a hint of romantic tension for the first time, and a good sprinkling of humour. Overall, a great improvement, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series. Four stars. [First written May 2011]