Some fantasy books sort of parachute you into the middle of the action, and hurl bits of information around in a whirlwind, and it can be several hundred pages before you begin to get your head above water (if you'll excuse the clashing metaphors) and work out at least some of what's going on. I hate that type of book, and fortunately this is quite the opposite. It starts slowly, with characters immersed in their world, and the background is released at a nice steady rate, so that it's not hard to keep up with what's going on. It's very pleasant to feel that you're at least a step or two ahead of some of the characters, anyway.
The world-building is rather good. Shahaios is a very believable and distinctive place, not so much because of any wildly original flora or fauna or climate (it feels vaguely European or perhaps Canadian to me, with forests, lakes, bears and deer, although there are unicorns, dragons and phoenixes too, to liven things up a little), but because of the carefully thought out social structure, which differentiates it from the standard sort of low-technology pseudo-medieval world. It feels a little utopian, but that's fine, this is fantasy. The evil Empire from beyond the mountains, on the other hand, is entirely conventional (it had a Romanesque feel to me). The magic is of the best type, too - simple but powerful, and with plenty of scope for development as the series continues.
Of the characters, Kierce is the most interesting by far. I liked the idea of the young man with unusual powers who uses them to win games and to get laid. Well, of course he does. So obvious. And when he reluctantly becomes the Lord High Magician, he discovers that politics is just another type of game. He also has a terrific sense of humour - I'm a sucker for a book that makes me laugh out loud. Caras is much less interesting - a worthy but dull (and very stupid) bloke. It's difficult to make such a character sympathetic, and I have to admit it took the entire book, but I did eventually get to that point. Orlii, the apparently mindless captive, is a wonderfully complex character, whose growth over the course of the book is entirely believable and deeply disturbing. Of the rest, although they are only lightly sketched out, and some need just a little more depth to make them truly shine, generally they succeed as rounded characters.
The plot, such as it is, relates the uneasy alliance between the militaristic Empire and the naive Shaihen, with their simple farming and hunting lifestyle, and built-in sense of equality and respect. They address everyone the same: first name for familiarity, or more respectfully as 'lord' or 'lady', from the barely adult farming girl, to the King himself, who is more of a 'first among equals' than a ruler. The political machinations associated with the arrival of the Empire's soldiers (after the King marries a daughter of the Emperor) are the usual sort of thing. It is the culture clash between the two very different lifestyles which provides most of the interest, and the author brilliantly conveys the near impossibility of either side trying to understand how the other's mind works. It's hard to elicit answers when you don't even know what questions to ask.
The widest gulf is in their belief systems. The Empire has a mish-mash of gods, with individuals believing in and worshipping their own selection from the available pantheon. Some are fanatical about their particular god, some are more pragmatic, and the gods themselves seem to require different responses from their adherents. And there are devils and demons and a hell, and a great deal of fear. The Shaihen, on the other hand, have no gods or demons, just a single magician, able to read and manipulate minds and tap into the spirit of the land and its people. Neither side really understands the other, and, most intriguingly, the Imperials, quite happy to believe in a myriad of invisible gods, are quite unable to believe in Kierce's magic. They assume it's just illusion, and if they see incontrovertable evidence, they shy away in fear from his 'sorcery'. It's a fascinating juxtaposition.
The story builds well, becoming a real page turner. Partly this is due (aspiring authors take note) to Rule's neat little chapter titles. It's very trendy these days to name each chapter for a specific character (so you turn the page and think - oh no, not him again!), or else there are no titles at all beyond the rather dull 'Chapter 17', which makes it easy to put the book aside. But when you finish a chapter and the next one is called something intriguing ('Encounter with a dragon', for instance, or 'Kierce makes an entry') it's all too easy to think - hmm, well, just one more chapter then. The book is well written, with only a few small typos and some odd chunks of repetition in the middle.
The climax of the story is both inevitable and very moving. This is not a story of great wars or wizardly duels, although there are a few battles and magical outbreaks along the way. This is about people, and how they understand and misunderstand each other, how they try to do what others want of them or try to avoid it, how they deceive themselves and others. Mostly, it's about illusions, and what happens when they are stripped away. It's a terrific book, actually, well thought out and absorbing. It reads perfectly well as a stand-alone, although it's actually the first part of a trilogy. An enjoyable read. Four stars.