Nareth is a Samerier warrior (a super-soldier of sorts, I'm going to stay vague about that), and single-handedly turned the tide against an invading army in a recent war. Haunted by what happened (particularly is role in it), and determined to prevent that needing to happen again, he goes on a secret peace mission to the country that recently invaded his own. His brother, the king, sends a security force and an ambassador, too. But they can't move as quickly as he can (nor are they as driven).
Nareth arrives in the capitol city, Anbatar, and is stymied on every front—he can't talk to anyone in the government. The invasion had gone so awry that the king was killed, so by law, the leaders of the nation are behind locked doors for weeks until succession is decided and a new king is crowned. Forced to wear makeup to disguise his darker pigmentation, Nareth familiarizes himself with Anbatar, starts to get a feel for the politics in the city, and makes some contacts that will help when he (and the coming diplomat) have a chance to negotiate a lasting peace.
When the opportunity arises (forced, actually, by Nareth taking a reckless and potentially calamitous step), it comes tied to dangerous tasks -- digging out the remnants of a secret police and protecting the daughter of a popular candidate for the monarchy from forces loyal to the slain king's family.
This books would work pretty well as Exhibit A in an examination of why I rarely DNF things. There were a handful of aspects to this novel that felt like deal-breakers when Dolleri introduced them. If not deal-breakers, harbingers of a disappointing read, anyway. The kind of things that felt things I've read in other independently published Fantasy novels that almost never worked out well. For example: the way she kept most of the details about the Samerier warriors from the reader for most of the book; the seemingly irrational feud between Nareth and his ambassador—and the way the two interacted with each other; the way the inevitable romance was introduced. Dolleri didn't do a bad job with any of them, but at first blush these things (and others) reminded me of a disappointment in another book and made me think that this book would be the same. But at some point, without me noticing, she won me over. Every time that I grumbled about something in my notes, or rolled my eyes at an idea, I eventually got to the point where not only did the thing not bother me, I ended up liking the way she was dealing with things.
I'm not sure I'm being clear there—so let me put it this way: every negative (or potential negative) that I came across, she turned into a positive. That's skill, that's a good instinct (even if she didn't see what I'm complaining about as a negative), she put enough heart, individuality or chutzpah into her story that I couldn't help but respond positively.
At one point (I have to be careful here to not give away anything), it became clear to me what kind of ending she was going for (even if I didn't have all the details guessed, I could see the trajectory) and it's not what I expected. Even here, I quickly got behind her choices and was able to enjoy them.
There is a real lack of backstory about this world, about the recently completed war and the ongoing tensions between the two countries (pre-war and after). We get a little bit of information on this, but not much. This is both wonderful—no prolonged infodumps—and frustrating—it'd just be nice to know from time to time. Ultimately, I think this was a smart move (and makes the reading easier), but man...I'm curious.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about this character, but there's a thief wandering around the city. He can get where he wants, when he wants. His mere presence gets people to give him their money—he's like Batman would be if he turned. His character alone, plus the impact he has on various points of the story, are real bonuses for me. I'd read a book about him at the drop of a hat.
Typically in Fantasy novels, animals are just part of the background, or they're invested with some sort of near-magic/supernatural quality. Nothing against the latter, but I'd prefer just some good animals. That's what we have here—Alahar, Nareth's horse is a good warhorse—he works well with his rider, but isn't supernaturally fast, strong or smart animal. Nareth also has a dog, Revo. It seems once or twice that Revo might secretly be supernatural, but in the end, he's just a good dog. I think he gets short-changed a little in the end (and that's not just because I'm obsessed with dogs in fiction), but he's nice to see.
The last character that I want to focus on is Keni. He's a typical street urchin who does some odd jobs for Nareth and ends up being taken under his wing. There was something infectious and charming about his presence, and I think a lot of the affection I ended up having toward this book is rooted in him. At the very least, Dolleri's use of him magnified my appreciation for the book.
My last point is this—Dolleri isn't a native English speaker/writer. Which can be a dicey thing when trying to write/translate fantastical elements. If I didn't know English was a second language for her, I don't think I could've determined that from the book. Major kudos to her for that—no small feat.
Is this the best Fantasy I've read this year? No. But it's a surprisingly satisfying one. I'm ready to head back to this world, hopefully back to some of the characters. It's an intriguing setting for some enjoyable characters to have their adventures in with an author that has some pretty solid story-telling chops. I'd get this one if I were in your shoes, folks.