Chernobog, the demon, is planning to invade Europe, with the collusion of the Mongols, through his puppet, Jagiellon, Ruler of Poland and Lithuania. Only two young Venetian Men stand between him and complete victory- Benito Valdosta and Manfred of Brittany, raised as poor canal boys, and now in charge of forces working against the demon.
With Benito married and settled down in Corfu, Manfred, with his Bodyguard Erik Hakkonsen, a knight born and raised in Iceland. Sent to the lands of the Golden Khan, escorting a diplomatic ambassador who is an Ilkhan, they must make an agreement with Iskander Beg, leader of the Hillfolk beyond Constantinople, to get permission to pass through his territory.
Meanwhile, in a prison, a young man named Vlad has been a prisoner for most of his life. But when a chance arises to escape, he takes it, heedless of the risk. He wants to return to his home in Valachia, and along the way, he meets a beautiful blonde woman- Elizabeth Bartholdy, the nearly-immortal sorceress who works for Chernobog, and has truck with demons, spirits and other foul and fell creatures. Elizabeth has plans for both Vlad and his sister, who is in hiding with their mother, but she needs for Vlad to be entranced with her and still a virgin to use him.
Vlad is so green that he doesn't understand the Kind of feeling that Elizabeth Bartholdy engenders in him. But he does know that there is something inside him, a kind of darkness that makes him interested in death and blood and combat and hurting things. He's struggled against it all his life, but it also makes him stronger than other men... and more resistant to magic, so Elizabeth finds him much harder to ensnare in her web than she thinks he will be.
Rescued from Elizabeth by a group of gypsies who can also become wolves, unbeknownst to him, he is not unknown to them, and his family is the result of much breeding by the gypsies, who are not, in fact, gypsies at all. When they leave him Valachia, he finds that the people there remember him fondly, and when he starts fighting the boyars who are in bed and in sympathy with Emeric of Hungary, who now rules the area, he suddenly finds himself at the head of a force of troops, and winning battles against the forces of Emeric and the boyars.
Vlad's sister, Dana, and his mother, take shelter with the same "Gypsies" that aided Vlad. Forced to adopt their dress and appearance to be safe, the Gypsies take the two women with them to their mountain hideout, where they are concealing a large secret: the last two surviving Gryphons, just hatched. They attempt to keep her away from the Gryphons, but she is curious and will not be denied.
Meanwhile, in the lands of the Golden Horde, a Mongol Princess named Bortai tries to protect her brother, who has fallen in a game and hit his dead. He's not dead, but his wits are wandering, and because other Mongols attack him and her with the intention to kill her brother Kildai, and have one less candidate for the ruler of the Mongols, she must flee the Kurultai with her brother in a cart, and escape the other Mongols who come to look for her.
Luckily, she finds a Mongol slave, Ion, who is also fleeing, and commands his help in keeping her brother safe and alive. But in the steppes, danger lurks around every corner, and it's not just the other Mongols she has to look out for.
Manfred, meanwhile, is travelling into the Mongol lands, escorted by Iskander Beg and his men, as well as Erik and the Church Knights, and a small horse-boy recruited from Jerusalem. But as soon as Iskander Beg has left, the Mongols turn on the knights, and Manfred, but are handed a stunning defeat by the knights and their cannons and handguns. In the process, they rescue Bortai and Kildai, and Erik inadvertantly offers her marriage in offering her shelter.
As they return to the Kurultai, Bortai uses David, who bears an uncanny resemblance to her brother, to make it seem as if Kurultai has recovered from his blow. He actually is recovering, but not as quickly as Bortai would hope. She leads them to the camp of her own people, the Blue Horde, but must return to the Kurultai to elect a new Great Khan in the spring. And in the meantime, Vlad, who has enraged Emeric with his success in Valachia, comes to the lands of the Horde to trade for horses for his troops, where he meets with and impresses Erik and Manfred.
But Elizabeth Bartholdy is still out there, and seeks to entrap Vlad and his sister in her snares. But amidst war and magic and evil, can the forces of good gain a victory over Chernobog and deny him the assistance of Elizabeth and the magic forces she commands? And what will be the fate of the Gryphons and the family bond to the land of Valachia that Vlad and his family are blessed with?
Wow, this was a long book, and because it has been so long since I read the previous book in the series, "This Rough Magic", I had trouble remembering what was going on, and what had come before, so the first part of the book was very rough going for me. But after about, oh 1/4 of the book, it all began making sense and connecting again.
This is a book, even one that is part of a series, that you don't really need to read in any kind of order. Yes, it's nice if you can, and it will explain who characters like Eneko Lopez are, but it's not truly necessary to the story to understand the bigger picture, the story in the here and now is entertaining enough on its own.
Mainly, this story is one that involves lots of battles, military fighting, and politics, with added character delving into their background. This book will appeal to those who love military fiction and battles. In this book and in this case, it has a fantasy bent, but the characters are ripped from reality. Vlad is Vlad Dracula (his people even call him "Drac"), and Elizabeth Bartholdy is Elizabeth Bathory. And so on.
I enjoy military fiction, mostly science fiction, without having ever been in the military. Eric Flint and Dave Freer are very good at writing fighting in large groups and describing combat, while I have always thought of Mercedes Lackey as more of a character-driven fantasy writer (although she doesn't write just fantasy), but here she is surprisingly good at fitting in with the others. I found this an entertaining read, and I do recommend it.