I give Martha Wells credit for developing a very different world here. This is not your standard medieval fantasy, nor quite your less-standard Eastern one. It’s a mix of existing elements, but it works very well as a fairly unique setting centered around world that must be remade every year through complex rituals. It’s never clear whether this is mostly tradition or the world is actually remade (and how the rituals were learned), but clearly the rituals have important effect.
Maskelle, the exiled ex-Voice of the Adversary, is a powerful mage, but also a genuine, human character with needs and emotions. She travels with a group of actors and a mysterious swordsman, and Wells shows us the relationships unfolding in a way that’s both subtle and credible. She’s not concerned with building up a lot of interplay and romance, and the story works well that way.
The settings and descriptions could have used some clarity, and the descriptions are sometimes overly terse, but we generally get enough for the story to work. What’s nice about the story is that not just the relationships, but also the grand, world-shaking actions are presented in a pragmatic, low-key way – the antithesis of the usual over-the-top adventure. These are practical people dealing with problems that just happen to include saving the world. With a touch of humor.
So, what holds this story back? The prose is good, but is generally as low-key as the story itself. It’s one area where the book could have benefited from more grace and beauty, to move the language from workmanlike to elegant. The overall plot is good, intriguing, and not quite what we’d expect, but there are also a fair number of loose ends. The core concept is good, but I really wish Wells had done more with the material she introduced. The end fells less like a wrapup than a convenient place to stop, or a good idea that simply isn’t fleshed out well enough to satisfy.
All in all, an unusual and interesting world that doesn’t reach as far as it should. Recommended despite some flaws.