Dave Duncan's Lord of the Fire Lands, the second book in the "Tales of the King's Blades" series, is an interesting piece of work. It's not a sequel to The Gilded Chain, instead taking place concurrently in a different part of the world. Sir Durendal only briefly appears; here the story focuses on two younger students at the Blade hall with their own story to tell. What makes it even weirder is that the book contains a completely different fate for King Ambrose than appears in the first book. I'm assured that this is explained in the third book, so I'll leave that alone for now. I've only read two of Duncan's books, but I can already tell that he's a master at the fantasy craft. This book is definitely recommended.
King Ambrose shows up at the school where Blades are trained and then bonded to their king (or, at their king's whim, to somebody else) by a sword through the heart in a magical ritual. Candidate Wasp is small for a typical Blade, and he doesn't think he's going to get chosen this time around, but he finds himself among the large group that the king needs. However, his best friend, Radgar ,refuses the honor of being bonded. Wasp decides that he should follow suit, demonstrating his loyalty without knowing all the facts. Ambrose is livid and demands to know why. Radgar tells the story of his father, and once that is finished, Wasp is bonded to Radgar. Both must undertake a journey that will change not only their lives but the political landscape of the world for years to come.
Those who have read The Gilded Chain will find Lord of the Fire Lands a very strange book if they remember anything about what happened in its predecessor. This doesn’t happen until later in the book, as we get a rather long history lesson about Radgar's father before getting into the "present day" storyline, but thankfully the history lesson is quite interesting in itself. While I mention the fate of King Ambrose above, the first niggling bit of continuity difference is the mention of Durendal having his second Blade bonded to him. There's no way that the events of the first book that took place after that bonding could have taken place in the same time frame of this book. Years go by in this book, while those events took up a few days at most. As this will supposedly be explained later, I mention this only as a word of warning to other readers rather than as a criticism.
Duncan showcases his wonderful characterization skills yet again. Wasp is young and naive before he's bonded, and becoming bonded doesn't change much of that (though it does make his job harder, as Blades are magically compelled to give their lives for the people their bonded to). Radgar is also extremely well done, with his brashness, sense of humor, and willingness to do what it takes for justice coming to the fore. He's also very cunning, and Duncan showcases his intelligence in many different situations. Especially good is Healfwer, the old hermit who can cast a spell that will tell a person what their primary bane is (fire, water, love). He's almost completely insane, but he's fun.
Once again, Duncan's plotting and prose is beautiful, too. He holds reader interest throughout the story of royal intrigue in Baelmark, the land of Viking-type people where most of the story takes place. The first part of the book is about Radgar's father, and the story subsequently moves on to Radgar's return home after he finishes his tale to the king. The Baelish society is well rendered, populated with interesting characters and plot twists as Radgar discovers just how deep the deceit that caused his flight from Baelmark goes. Lord of the Fire Lands is a tale of greed and revenge, not just with the Baels but with Ambrose as well. Duncan can make you laugh for a moment then dazzle you with choreographed swordplay that he writes so well (though there's not as much of it in this book as there is in The Gilded Chain). Overall, his writing is superb.
Any fault to be found with Lord of the Fire Lands is exceedingly minor. Duncan is quickly becoming my favorite fantasy writer, and one day I'll actually catch up to his current books. These Tales of the King's Blades are top-notch fantasy and deserve a look from any fan of the genre. Just try not to get too confused by the timelines if you've read the previous book first.