This book is fourth in the Sword of Shadows series. Raif Severance, exiled warrior of the Clan Blackhail, has retrieved the sword known as Loss from its tomb in the icy battlefield. With its recovery, he should be acclaimed as "Watcher of the Dead", but he's still recovering from a blow by a creature known as an Unmade, and travel is slow on the ice.
Back at the home of his former clan, Raina Blackhail is dealing with trying to be a real leader to the clan now that her husband is dead. But she isn't a warrior, and she's only related to the clan by marriage. Can she win the support and loyalty of the men of the clan enough for them to follow her, while another man sniffs around, seeklng to rule the clan himself?
Marafice, meanwhile, has taken the city and made himself a warrior to be respected among the clans. But to keep that loyalty and hold the city he has conquered, he needs the support of his father-in-law, Stornaway. But while Marafice has married the man's daughter, Stornaway is harder to impress than the warriors, and getting his support, not to mention respect, will be far harder for Marafice than conquering the city.
Meanwhile, Rafe and his companion Addie Gunn have been taken by the Sull for a slate of torture for Rafe and a slow death by disease for Addie. But as Rade learns to fight and kill with an intensity and cool dispassion that is animalistic, can he save Addie from death by defeating the Sull and their slaves who fight him daily?
Effie Sevrance, Raif's niece, has been taken to the clan Stillwater, deep in the swamp. Effie thinks they are slaves, but her new companion Chedd can't seem to grasp that. Can Effie learn to survive in the midst of the swamp, and what does clan Stillwater want with her and Chedd?
I have to admit, this was another book I picked up, not necessarily thinking that it wasn't part of a series (since it made it clear it was right on the dust jacket, but hoping it was one that could stand on its own a wee bit, one I could enjoy and that would maybe make me want to pick up the past books. So did it? Well, yes, it was enjoyable, but at the same time, the world has the grimdark, and I wasn't enthralled enough to pick up the other books.
As the book began, I was introduced to characters, none of which I knew, and which, especially in Rafe's case, who were subjected to terrible things in service of the story. I felt bad for Addie Gunn, and for Rafe himself. I mean, he's being tortured by the Sull, and as they are introduced as protagonists elsewhere in the story, (or at least, one half-Sull female character was), I wasn't sure if I was supposed to accept what they were doing to Rafe and Addie for the sake of the story, or think of the Sull as Antagonists. It's kind of obvious that they are this world's equivalent of elves, but not trusted by the clans because they are alien and different.
The story lines are a little disjointed for someone who hasn't read the other books in the series. I knew that Raina was trying to save the clan, and Effie was Rafe's niece, but I wasn't sure what their stories had to do with the storyline as a whole. It felt like a story going somewhere, but where, exactly? I was being left in the dark as to that. I did get that Rafe, as "Watcher of the Dead" is supposed to save the Sull, but given what they did to him, I don't know that they deserved saving. Knowingly or not, they reduced him to the level of an animal, and I doubt he has any love for the Sull after how they treated him and let Addie Gunn die.
In a way, the book was effective at painting a dark and grim setting consistent with other cultures of the far North like the Norse myths. But I found parts of the book distasteful to read, and at times, even painful. I enjoyed J. V. Jones' "Baker Boy", but this series was far removed from that. I may have somewhat enjoyed it, but at the same time, I didn't end up wanting to read other books in the series to see how and where Rafe and Addie Gunn ended up in the situation they are in at the start of the book. I wouldn't recommend this book, but it wasn't so bad that I would warn people away from it, either. However, you should probably read it as part of the series, as it really can't stand well on its own.