People who read the first two of Dave Duncan's "Tales of the King's Blades" series must have been really confused when things happened differently in The Gilded Chain than they did in Lord of the Fire Lands. How could King Ambrose die at two different times in two different ways? Why are the characters having different things happen to them? Sky of Swords answers that question, and unfortunately Duncan had written himself into such a corner that the conclusion isn't as satisfying as its first two parts. It's still extremely well-written and fun, but the solution to his problem is cliched and rather boring, not to mention predictable.
Sky of Swords is the story of Ambrose's daughter, Princess Malinda. We first see her in seclusion with her mother, who was cast aside when Ambrose tired of her and she couldn't produce any sons. When news reaches their exile that Ambrose is re-marrying and her mother will never get back to court, her mother throws herself into the ocean. Experiences like this foster a hatred of her father that she finds hard to stifle, but stifle it she does when she finally comes to court. Courtly intrigue, Ambrose's use of Malinda as a marriage pawn to end a costly war, and Ambrose's assassination produce a struggle for the throne. With newly bonded King's Blades for protection, Malinda must navigate the treacherous seas of politics as things fall apart around her - but maybe something magical can change all of this.
Duncan's prose is as delicious as ever, but Sky of Swords lacks much of the swashbuckling that made the first two books fun. Instead, we get loads of political maneuvering and personal relationships, which Duncan doesn't present as well. The relationship that develops between Malinda and one of her blades is sweet in its own way, but many of the scenes between them just don't seem that real. Don't get me started on the sex scenes (while relatively tame, they're not very well-written). As for the politics, he does better with those, but the scenes start to get old after a while.
It doesn't help that this book begins with Malinda already in somebody else’s kangaroo court, on "trial" for her crimes during the succession battles. This serves to introduce each event that Duncan then goes on to tell us about. This kind of foreshadowing removes some of the suspense from subsequent events. It has to be done well, and Duncan is only adequate at it.
Duncan's characterization skills still present themselves, with Malinda being especially good. We see the characters from the previous books in a new light, adding to their strengths and making them even more interesting. I especially liked Durendal (Lord Roland after he's released from his bond), who is Ambrose's advisor and tries desperately to help Malinda after Ambrose's death, despite Malinda not trusting him. Roland's fate is tragic, and those scenes have to be read to be believed. The rest of her Blades are also well-done, but the other Blades (those not bonded to her) start to run together at times, especially when there are ten or twenty of them involved.
Unfortunately, all of this is marred by the reconciliation of the two books. I'm not sure what Duncan's original plans were for a third book. I've read an email excerpt that says he hadn't planned on ending Lord of the Fire Lands the way he did, but the characters demanded it of him. By listening to his characters, he appears to have been forced to write this book to make sense of the first two, and it doesn't work. The ending is seen a mile away as soon as the first possibility is even mentioned (though the context of the mention is different, obviously), and then it's just a matter of getting to that point. Thankfully, Duncan makes the ride worthwhile, though not enough to completely forgive the predictability.
Sky of Swords kept me reading far into the night, but that's mostly because I was already invested in these characters. This should definitely not be your first Blades book (though if it is, it probably wouldn't be as predictable since you don't know why the change is necessary). I'm not sure I would have cared as much about the characters if I weren't already familiar with most of them. The entire series is wonderful, though, and well worth picking up despite the constraints put on the last book. Give them all a try. I can't wait to move on to the stand-alone "King's Blades" books.