From its opening, the story misleadingly appears to be a normal sword and sorcery style book. Bragi Ragnarson is the lord of a minor land grant, but with a newborn heir kidnapped and a throne in balance, he's called back to active service. The book doesn't stay there, taking the story into full-blown military fantasy, with the story turning on battles and sieges rather than chutzpah and chance encounters. By the end, it's an all-out battle for the fate of the west.
Being among the first true military fantasies, if not the first, Cook hasn't figured out how to tell this sort of story yet. The whole thing still feels like a chimaera, but this time, you know which sort of animal the work is supposed to look like. For the first time, it's apparent that Cook hasn't merely stretched the sword and sorcery subgenre, but created a new thing, a new subgenre, military fantasy, one that he would perfect in his Black Company series.
The narrative is dense, often so dense that if you skim a paragraph you miss so many details that you need to go back and reread. There's no fluff here.
The narrative hops between four or five characters, with these changes well signaled to the reader. You'll have no trouble following the point of views of each actor.
This book is brilliant in many ways, mostly in the way that it goes into brand new fantasy territory, but the cost of this brilliance is a leaden narrative, one that leaves the reader shuffling through the work.
Objectively, the books is a bit of a mess, alternating between traditional human-centric narrative, summarized history that's part of the unfolding story, and detailed summaries of major battles. Although there is a through-line with the Dread Empire, the lines doesn't feel very satisfying.
In the end, the book feels less like a narrative and more like an elaborate report. I'm giving this book a low score, not because I think it worthless, but because the number of people deriving enjoyments from this titles will be in the minority. Getting through the middle of this thing felt like an absolute slog for such a short book. However, I won't call it a dog because there are cool things about this book, just not enough for me to rave over. The reach its true potential, the book really needs to be 3x longer.