Where The Cold Commands ended on a quest, a purpose and a defined goal, with almost a year passed the mythical ghost isle has still not been found by the expedition to the Hironish Isles led by kir-Archeth Indamaninarmal, last half-breed daughter of the immortal race of the Kiriath, her bodyguard Egar of the berserker Majak clan and Ringil, noble born of the Glades House Eskiath, swordsman, novice sorcerer, or “outlaw faggot scum” as his reputation holds with his many adversaries.
As false leads burn out, the men under their command have become tired and disillusioned, and even Archidi, accustomed to court intrigue and playing the long game down generations, has lost her patience with the cryptic murmurings of the Kiriath Helmsman Anasharal while Egar tries to maintain discipline among soldiers who have taken to fighting over tavern whores and torturing locals to distract themselves from the grey drizzle and sodden soil of Ornley, the fishing village which serves as their base camp.
But the Dark Court still wish to use Ringil as their agent in their dealings with man, however unwilling; an embodiment of Firfirdar, Mistress of Dice and Death, slightly less obscure than Anasharal and correspondingly only marginally more helpful, appears to Ringil to confirm that they are on the right track, but more importantly warns him that new trouble is coming, and fast.
In their absence from the capital Trelayne, war has been declared between the Yhelteth Empire and the Northern League, former allies in the war against the Scaled Folk now fighting each other when they should be preparing for the return of those rapidly evolving reptiles and the second threat of the sinister ethereal Dwenda, with the trio lodged thousands of miles on the wrong side of the border when the conflict begins.
Against an army of men, a swarm of reptiles and the rekindling of the ancient war between the Kiriath and the Dwenda, the odds against the Krakenbane, the Dragonbane and the burnt-black witch are impossible. Separated from Archidi and Egar, Ringil must lead the few men under his command against a vastly larger and better equipped force and so push himself harder than ever before both as a fighter and a black mage. Never much for playing nice with the other children, Ringil can be his own worst enemy; stronger and more dangerous than before he may be, but even those few souls he has allowed close to him are pushed aside.
It’s not been an easy journey for Gil and his comrades, nor for those who have followed their exploits with the three year gap between The Dark Defiles and the previous volume matching that which passed between that and their first adventure, The Steel Remains, and the opening chapters reflect the frustration of that drawn out and fruitless search for the lost Kiriath city of An-Kirilnar. While Morgan takes his time in weaving together the final threads of his tapestry, in doing so he reveals detail and depth only previously hinted at as he scrapes away the accumulated rust of the millennia since the first war to reveal truths long buried and possibly better forgotten.
Three volumes in, it’s never been more apparent that this is not straight forward fantasy, that there is much more to Morgan’s world, and the already convoluted journey of the characters becomes further complicated by the frustratingly opaque input of the ancient machines of the Kiriath, the squabbles and demands of the Dark Court and the factions vying for power both within Trelayne and further afield, brokering their power games with pawns predictably more resistant than compliant. Ringil has no illusions about himself, has long since sacrificed the honour of his family name and lives with that fact without outward regret, but Archidi still tries to serve her Emperor to the best of her ability despite the conflicts that arise; a land fit for heroes is anything but.
Even fighting a guerrilla skirmish war and fending off ambushes, inevitably there is blood and tears as the bodies pile up. It was always hugely unlikely that the trio would find a happy ending to their quest, but in full knowledge of this they carry on regardless, burying their dead when they are able but never looking back. If the conclusion is in many ways unsatisfying, some characters in a narrative tangent while the fate of others is wilfully abstract, it should be no surprise: the Dark Court is not answerable to anyone, and neither does Morgan mollycoddle his readers. His unforgiving world is harsh and anything of worth must be taken by force, though in the coda to the novel he throws two small nuggets which hint that while the trilogy may be concluded there are still stories to be told around the campfire of battles yet to come. Sometimes even a dark god feels he owes some small debt to a contrarian and defiant mortal…