The second book of a trilogy is always intriguing. Will there be a change of tempo or a new direction, or will it simply carry on from the first book? In this case, the answer is - both. The prologue overlaps directly with the last section of book one, and is perhaps the second best opening I've ever encountered after 'Tigana', although - obviously - for very different reasons. It's funny and tragic at once, it summarises some of the story so far while also capturing the essence of the characters involved. I won't spoil the surprise by saying any more, but it is brilliantly funny, in a macabre sort of way.
And then it's straight into new characters, new directions, a new religion even, and the fallout from book one, and - hmm, suddenly it's all a bit dull. Whenever the dragons are around, it's terrific, but I'm just not that into the humans. Trouble is, they're either very mad or very shallow, and all of them are slightly flat, and when it's just the same old deviousness as in book one, it feels a bit repetitious.
The fast pace of the first book is much more uneven here, so that there are moments of breathtaking action interspersed with long passages of quite dull description ('To the north, he could see... And to the east...'). Yawn. Especially when a lot of it seemed to contradict the map (and I don't think I had the map upside down). And quite a lot of the backstory came out by means of one character explaining it at length to another, or, worse, soliloquising (or, as often seemed to happen, talking to himself in a dream - lots of dreams in this series). It's not that it was uninteresting, in fact some of it was fascinating (the bits about dragons - the family history was just laundry lists of names), but it did slow the action down. And sometimes in the middle of a solemn bit, there was a laugh out loud moment, or some really black humour, which felt a bit jarring, somehow.
But there are glimmerings of depth to some of the characters - Jaslyn, for instance, and (can it be possible?) Jehal. And Meteroa intrigues me. But the Nightwatchman needs to get a grip on himself - he takes the moral high ground at every step, and claims he only follows orders, when he seems to be as devious as anyone else. I'm not quite sure what he's trying to do, actually, or why, or whether his hypocrisy is no more than a convenient plot device.
And speaking of which, there wouldn't be much of a story without a great deal of stupidity on Zafir's part. In the first book, her motives were very plain. Not commendable, but understandable. But this time round, it's not clear to me that she's driven by anything more than irrational jealousy, which, given the likely outcome of her little schemes, boils down to plain stupidity. It is always difficult for an author to dream up convincing motivation, especially when the character is hellbent on war and general mayhem and a lot of slaughtering of royalty, but I don't really get what Zafir is up to, frankly. Or maybe it's all that inbreeding, and she's just barking, who knows. Insanity is another big feature of the series.
But whether because of Zafir or the dragons or (maybe) just because the author felt like it, a lot of characters die in this book, some of them quite abruptly. This is a technique which has its attractions - there's a certain exhilaration, I suppose, to bumping off main characters or having them horribly maimed, and the likes of George R R Martin have used it with abandon. But there is a downside. For the reader, it can have a disconnecting effect - why get invested in a character when her or she is quite likely to be dragon food a few chapters further on? Once or twice has shock value, but the more this happens, the greater the desensitising effect. I would have thought that authors actually want readers to care about the characters, and this is not the way to do it.
But there again, there's actually no one here who has a half-way decent impulse in them. All the main characters are devious, scheming, selfish bastards and it's tempting to say that, actually, they deserve everything they get. Even the dragon feels obliged to point this out. So yes, maybe dragon food is all they deserve to be. The ending is a veritable orgy of double crossing, so it's very hard to work out who (if anyone) is winning. And by this time, I'm not at all sure I much care. Let's hope the final volume hits the high spots again. Three stars.