Anton Magnus is one of the Magnus family. Enlisted in the Royal Hussars to make his fortune, he survived a hunt that killed and injured many other nobles and officers, thanks to the aid of his brother, Wulf, who just so happens to be a Speaker. Speakers have near-miraculous powers of magic, but according to the church, those powers are blasphemy and of the Devil. They are called Speakers because they claim to hear the voices of Saints, who they can call on for their powers.
The church, of course, believes that the voices are actually those of demons, and so takes in any Speakers they find or suspect and drum into their heads that the voices are evil. Then they keep watch over the Speakers to ensure that none of them give into using their powers. In the case of Anton and Wulf, one of their brothers, Marek, was a speaker and was taken by the church. Because of this, Wulf has been trying not to use his powers, not to come to the attention of the church.
But in a way, he has. Because Anton survived a situation that should have killed him, he has come to the attention of the church, and the government as well. The Scarlet Spider, a churchman who is really named Cardinal Zdenek, has a role in mind for Anton. He wishes to send Anton to the northern land of Cardice, where an important castle/fort protects the kingdom's northern border. The Baron of the Castle and his son have recently died under suspicious circumstances, and the Baroness is sunk in grief and depression. Most of the troops there are mercenaries and will soon desert unless the Kingdom reinforces the Castle. Zdenek has decided to make Anton lord of the Castle and set him the task of defending it from attack- and whoever may have been behind the strangely timely and fortuitous deaths of the Baron and his son. Luckily, the Baron also had a daughter- Madlenka Bukovany, who Anton will take to wife, cementing his reign as Count of Cardice.
Anton, in speaking with Zdenek, sees that he believes Speaking to be behind the deaths of the Baron and his son, who were killed at almost exactly the same time. But Anton also sees that Zdenek believes that *he* is the Speaker, when in fact, it is his brother, Wulf. Anton is not exactly troubled by that, and considers the Countship of Cardice to be more than ample payment for his troubles, as well as marriage to a well-connected woman. But he does prefer that she be at least tolerable to look at, which Zdenek is able to set his worries about to rest. He agrees and makes for his rented rooms, which he shares with Wulf, for he will need Wulf's help to do all he needs to do.
Wulf is harder to convince, as he has had enough problems with his Speaking to be wary about using it. He's not quite convinced that the voices he hears *aren't* Satanic, and because the cost of using his powers is pain and often a taint, he doesn't want to dig himself any deeper into a hole he may not be able to get out of. But he eventually agrees to go along with Anton, and they decide to visit their brother Marek along the way. Marek, however, is nothing like the cheerful brother they once knew- mainly due to the church's indoctrination in their beliefs about Speaking. But they haven't made him stop Speaking. Instead, they have persuaded him to do it for the church's benefit alone. Wulf feels that is strange, and no longer trusts his brother. Indeed, their brother tells him that the Abbot wanting him to talk to them in a certain place where he could overhear the conversation, but Marek acceded to their request to talk elsewhere, which will result in his being punished. They must flee the Abbey before the Abbot decides to take a greater interest in questioning them.
In Cardice, Madlenka is the only one of her family to be able to deal with what has happened to her family and their lands. She hopes to find a way to make peace without having to marry one of her neighbors and his dreadful sons and nephews, but her hands are tied by the town council and her father's former advisors, who aren't willing to back her, a woman, without a man beside her.
Then Anton and Wulf arrive, promising to bring peace and win any battles that may involve Cardice. But due to Wulf having to use his Speaking Powers to get them both there in time, Wulf arrives nearly dead on his feet and is taken promptly to the infirmary. While Anton struts and uses the power his new Countship has given him to cull any traitors from the ranks of the castle folk and townspeople, he alienates Madlenka with his happiness in having a tolerably pretty woman for a bride, and she, who wasn't sure she wanted to marry anyone in the first place, is completely left cold by Anton. But when she meets Wulf, she finds herself attracted to him, and then she falls in love with him. Wulf is also madly smitten with her, but when Anton catches wind of what is happening, he sends Wulf, now recovered, to get their other brothers, one of whom is awaiting ransom as a prisoner, and bring them to Cardice to help him.
Wulf manages to see Madlenka once before he leaves, and he gets her to promise to wait for him- and leaves to get his brothers, all of which requires greater Speaking than he has ever done before. And as he uses his powers, they increase, to the point where he no longer pays a price for using them and finds them coming easier, more powerfully, and faster than before. But back in Cardice, Madlenka is forced to marry Anton, who proceeds to find out if she is a virgin or not. But how will Wulf react to this betrayal, and how can he defeat the Enemy speaker who wants Anton, and any man he does not serve who is Lord of Cardice, dead? What is going on with his Speaking powers? Are they really powered by the Devil, or by the Saints? And can he help Marek see them as something good, not something evil?
Did you ever read a book where you disliked just about every single main character in it? That was this book for me. Anton was an asshole, Wulf was someone ready to cuckhold his own brother because of lust for his promised bride, and Madlenka was bossy and arrogant. I enjoyed the story, but not the characters, who kept rubbing at me like sandpaper until all I could feel was dislike and often, disgust.
Anton too often thought with his second head, and then Wulf started doing so , and I wasn't sure if Madlenka's attraction to Wulf was love, lust, rebellion against Anton's dictates, or some mixture of all three. By the middle of the novel, I was disgusted with all of them. I kept reading, hoping that at some point, something would happen that would redeem at least one or more of the characters, make them a little more heroic- something that would make me care and want to root for them to succeed. Unfortunately, it never happened.
This book is a "gritty" fantasy book. Nobody is heroic, they only do things because they get paid or gains them to do so. The church is corrupt and doesn't practice what it preaches- it's happy to tell Speakers their powers come from the Devil and are tainted with evil, and then turns around and has them use those powers to benefit the church. I found none of the main characters likeable, and so I would not recommend this series- at all. I will not be reading any more in this series, either, which is sad, because I usually like Dave Duncan's writing. But this series did not do it at all for me.