This is an amazingly fun book. Basically, Arqual is a bully of a land. They’ve conquested all the neighboring kingdoms around them and have pretty much reached an uneasy standstill with Mzithrin, the other major world power. The nations who’ve managed to resist domination have banded together into a federation based on their ability to tip the power struggle between the two biggies one way or the other. Ormael, Pazel Pathkendle’s homeland, was recently conquered. He was sold into slavery, and has vivid memories of the conquest of his home. This tarboy and his friends are now tangled into a conspiracy that could see Arqual destroyed. Unfortunately, it’d also result in the return of the Nilstone, a tool of ABSOLUTE DESTRUCTION. The baddies involved in this plan are using Thasha Isiq’s marriage to a member of the Mzithrin nobility as a cover for a series of political and magical coups. She is, needless to say, not thrilled.
What I liked about this story is that Pazel, Neeps, and the ixchel all have good reasons to hate Arqual. And they do! This anger at conquest isn’t treated as a “Well, maybe you shouldn’t hate EVERY Arqual — some are poor too!” Instead, they’re characterized as young adults who realize that because of their heritage, their national identity, and Arqual’s national greed, their quality of life is shite. I loved that — as a fan of color, I have to tell you I hate it when the angry brown person learns to love the privileged white person who just didn’t KNOW about the atrocities their nation committed. Plus, Thasha? The Arquali ambassador’s daughter? Can I share with you how hot it is that she’s so awesome at fighting and tactics that she’s able to arrange a run-away attempt that might’ve succeeded except for plot-twist 122? She and Diadrelu, a lady of the ixchel, emerge as astute tactical leaders. Thasha’s a bit more selfish than Diadrelu — Thasha’s in it for her own happiness, which is a reflection of her age and class status. Diadrelu is in it for her people, who’ve been almost wiped out. She’s older than Thasha, and is a bit wiser. The sacrifices she’s willing to make to preserve her world are monumental — and I loved that she makes them without compromising her personal ethics. I also loved that Thasha gets called out for being a member of the upper class. It doesn’t come off as the “princess humbling” you see in other books of this genre. Instead, she consciously re-evaluates the tools and social capital she has at her disposal — this is totally in keeping with her tactical skills.
All in all — Alifros parallels Mieville’s New Corbuzon in terms of vitality and inventiveness. I am really sincerely annoyed that the next book in this series will not be out until 2010.