Kieri Phelan was once a mercenary leader in Tsaia, but a woman, Paksenarrion Dorthansdottir, who was once of his company, found out that he was truly half-elven and of the royal line of Lyonya. By rescuing him and keeping him safe on the road, after she had discovered his true heritage, she made it possible for him to be crowned King of Lyonya. Soon after he was crowned, he was asked by the then-King of Tsaia to send his aide, Dorrin, who was actually Dorrin Verrakai, and the only trustworthy member of her family, to lead her family and root out the treachery within it after it was discovered that the Verrakais had designs on the Kingship for themselves.
Dorrin went and discovered that the older and more evil members of their family were putting their souls in the bodies of the young children, or others, and becoming perfect spies and hidden agents. She rooted out the evil with the help of Paks and some of her cohort, and for her efforts is now Duke Verrakai of Tsaia. Meanwhile, Prince Mikaeli of Tsaia has survived an assassination attempt on himself, and has become King of his country.
But both new monarchs and Dorrin Verrakai are not safe from the changes that continue to come from Paks' deed, and the upheaval that followed. As Dorrin tries to lead her family, many of which still fight her, thinking her a traitor, she seeks a way to keep the children of her family safe and to give them a normal upbringing, as well as to instill some manners and schooling into the little beasts that have been allowed to run wild by her family. She also must deal with a strange item discovered in her family's vaults and discover not only what it is and how to use it, but who to give it to so that it may be properly and rightfully used. Is anyone in Tsaia the proper holder of what she has discovered? And how did her family get it in the first place? Was it twisted into evil by them, and can she be trusted to determine that?
Meanwhile, King Kieri Phelan is dealing with problems in Lyonya. Though he has gone some way to relieving the fears of his people for how he wants to change the country to keep it safe, his grandmother, the elven ruler of Lyonya, seems to have developed a strange rift with him, as although he is asking her for aid in running Lyonya, she never seems to be there when he needs her, and won't answer his questions about why she is pulling away from him, or seems to be, and he's confused as to why this is so. Added to that is his need to marry and produce an heir for his kingdom, and the fact that his council all have plenty of ideas as to who that Queen should be and why, is making him cross and testy.
For Phelan was once married, and lost his wife, and he has long mourned her. And even though he could live another 200 or so years, being a half-elf, he must assure the security of the throne and its succession. He is perfectly willing to marry again, but the way the Council keep thrusting choices at him is getting on his nerves. He'd rather make a decision himself! But when a succession of eligible women come to his court for him to meet, and possibly choose, he realizes that many of these women aren't really any more happy about the situation than he is. Most have been forced to come to the court by their families, and some of the women's "protectors" have designs on the Lyonyan throne that would mean much ill for the King.
And Phelan is beginning to suspect that his grandmother might have had more to do with what happened to his father and sister than he ever thought or dreamed. As he investigates the family tomb beneath the castle, he begins to get a very bad taste in his mouth about what has come before. But can he stomach the investigation he must undertake, and will he realize that the answers will do more to change the situation in his Kingdom than anything that has come before, even his coronation?
Nor is King Mikaeli left out of the bad news and problems. He, too, is new on his throne and must secure it quickly from threats, especially that of the Duke Visla Vaskronin, and a man from the Southern lands of Siniava who thinks that he should be Ruler over everything, and has started a revolution by sending men who pretend to be bandits and steal weapons from merchants frightened of what these same "bandits" can do. But he's not alone in dealing with these bandits, Arcolin, who accepted a mercenary contract in the south for Phelan's former mercenary company, the Fox company, and who stands to become Duke in Phelan's place, must also solve the mystery of these seeming bandits and who they work for, while dealing with Stammel, who seems to be blinded, perhaps permanently, by the Demon who tried to take over his body in the last book.
And meanwhile, we learn that the eldest, (the elves, the dwarves and the others, including the elves and the rockfolk) are not the oldest races living. There is one older, but can any of them still be found among the living? Pakes makes a reappearance, along with an old friend of hers, and a new character, a gnome, whose abilities are unknown by most humans. Can war be prevented, and will the forces of darkness be defeated, or is there more evil to be found and dealt with? Can the three human and elven Kingdoms be saved, or will there be a new status quo in the lands?
I loved this book, but you have to realize that it is very dense, story-wise. So many plots and storylines, major and minor, crossed and recrossed and gave rise to so many different things that it was hard for me to try and write any kind of summary for it. Suffice to say, a lot happens, but it's all integrated so well that the story seems like one connected, flowing narrative, each told by different characters. Some of the plots, like the identity of Cortes Vonja and the information he carries from his native Aare to the Kingdoms of the North, unfold slowly, while others get plenty of time and are integral to the plot, like King Phelan's search for an acceptable bride, not only to himself, but to his people, the Council, and the elves of Lyonya, each of whom have very different ideas about the perfect bride for him.
And yet, despite all that happens, and its general slow pace (there are definite action sequences in the book, and plenty of military fighting, but the pace for most of the stuff is slow and thoughtful), you will find yourself being unable to put the book down. Indeed, I pretty much read it in a single sitting. Admittedly, that took up pretty much the entire day, but I found myself reading it even in the middle of preparing dinner, and then while eating that same dinner! There is a strong focus on the military and fighting, something that is informed by Elizabeth Moon's own life in the military, but it's never boring, dry or dull. And each character is interesting and stands out in his or her own way.
Admittedly, the end of the book pretty much relies on a deus ex machina, but the character in question is responsible for much of the happenings of the book, and isn't portrayed as a perfect, know-it-all character. We often see characters who seem that way, but who have feet of clay and make mistakes. This is another example of that, only on a much higher and more powerful scale, so I personally had no problem with the ending. And there will definitely be a third book- and a fourth, or so I hear.
This is an excellent series that attempts to answer what few writers attempt with regards to the worlds they have created: And what happened next after the Hero saved the day? It focusses on Kingdoms instead of one character (Paks), but it's a wonderful series that makes me feel as if I only read the original books last year instead of 20+ years ago. I'd advise checking out the original series (and thankfully, you won't have to wait a year to read the last book after the ending of the second, like I did all those years ago), but definitely check it out and read both series. It would be a crying shame if you didn't. Highly recommended.