Right off the bat it drops the reader into the thick of the roiling tensions between two major nations with a complicated history.
Once dangerously powerful & supported by miracles performed by their deities, Bulikov was responsible for the abuse & demoralization of many. Now, their gods destroyed & their histories revoked, Bulikov has been reduced to a shadow of its former splendor.
Saypur, persecuted for years by Bulikov, and now its rulers, sends Shara Thivani as an ambassador to the capital with an undercover mission to solve the murder of a Saypuri doctor who served as her mentor.
Shara is undoubtedly a star in this book. Strong willed, vastly clever, with a noticeable disability, she captured my interest from the moment she was introduced.
Shara is surrounded by a in intriguing group of characters, prominently featuring a huge & terrifying man from the North, Sigrud, and the equally terrifying retired General Mulagesh.
One of my favorite aspects of this book is that it's High-Fantasy that is not inspired by Medieval Europe. I've seen others designate that Bulikov is loosely based on Russia, and Saypur is loosely based on India.
It's so refreshing to find a Fantasy with a setting as vibrant & complex as this. I can see where some may have felt detached from the details here, but those details were crafted so skillfully that I never once found myself losing interest.
Author Robert Jackson Bennett expertly balances the current mystery plot with a number of flashbacks that help to flesh out & explain both the characters & their inclinations.
Personally, I've got this thing for stories that heavily revolve around politics & religion, especially when there are magical threads to consider. I love taking the journey through all the complicated motivations that have led the involved parties to their current situation, and this book is rife with the exploration of motives.
When a writer can show me only a small sliver of their world, but simultaneously convey that there is an expansive existence beyond the immediate scope of the story, that quickly grabs my attention.
The division of loyalties, obligations to one's religion, and the discovery of self-confidence are some of the major themes that weave together throughout this tale. In combination with exceptional magical qualities & a dynamic cast of characters, this book is by far one the most distinctive I've ever read.
I will say, the resolution of the plot within the larger plot was just slightly shaky for me with how it came about. But because the situations Bennett has created are so complex with many different moving pieces to consider, I'm willing to wait & allow my understanding fully develop before I let it bother me.
Would recommend to anyone looking for a fresh, bizarre, & beautifully crafted story that's (way) outside of the box!