Publisher: Orbit (1998)
ISBN: 1 85723 709 9
Précis: Some years ago, rocks and fire fell from the sky and the old Empire fell with them. In the lands released from that crushing hegemony, a new world order is about to emerge. Two people in particular can see all this in a wider context.
In the winter palace, the King's new physician has more enemies than she at first realises. But then she also has more remedies to hand than those who wish her ill can know about.
In another palace across the mountains, in the service of the regicidal Protector General, the chief bodyguard too has his enemies. But his enemies strike more swiftly, and his means of combating them are more traditional.
Summary: The Doctor, having recently been appointed as physician to King Quience, has created something of a stir in the Royal Court as never before has a woman been appointed to such a high position. Worse yet is that she is a foreigner and this earns her the enmity of various Dukes, in particular Duke Walden who begins scheming to either remove her, and put her to the euphamistic 'questioning' - really torture, or to expose her to the King as a fraud. So he begings enlisting the support of various other Duke's in his plans.
Meanwhile the bodyguard DeWar makes use of his spare time playing games with the Lady Perrund while his charge, the Protector General Urleyn, visits his harem. Preperations are being made for the Protector to wage war on the Barons of Ladenscion who have refused to fully submit to the new rule of the Protector. After foiling an assasination attempt DeWar becomes increasingly suspicious of the various Generals in the Protectors court, one of whom he suspects as wanting the Protector removed.
At the same time the Doctor has been busy slowly educating the King into a kinder way of ruling, much to the disapproval of the Dukes. Furthermore Duke Walden is murdered, not before his plan to expose the Doctor has been long set in motion. Events continue to build as Oelph, the Doctor's assistant and a spy for Adlain the Palace Guard Commander, discovers that the Doctor somehow has knowledge of various private conversations between Duke Walden and various other parties as he was arranging the downfall of the Doctor.
Eventually, after declaring her love for the King and being kindly but firmly rebuffed, the Doctor is lured into a trap where she is framed for the murder of Duke Ormin and uncermoniously carted off to the dungeons to be 'questioned'. Just as she is about to be tortured her torturers and assistants are mysteriously murdered and the King falls seriously ill - requiring her services. Brought forth from the dungeons she heals the King, apprises him of what was going on and thus escapes any immediate retribution that the various Dukes had planned for her. However she realises that her position here is now untenable and asks to be released from service - begining the long journey home.
Back with the Protector events have taken a turn for the worse with the war in Ladenscion going extremely badly. And just as the Protector himself was to step in and set things aright his son falls ill, requiring that his attention be back at the capital thus assuring failiure in the war. DeWar, ever more anxious for his charge, broods and finally figures out that UrLeyn's son is being poisoned and who is doing the posioning. Acting in haste he arrives too late to save UrLeyn from Lady Perrund who we discover has been biding her time finally acting in retribution for acts UrLeyn committed on his rise to power.
Considering for a time DeWar chooses to save Lady Perrund and together the two flee the capital and evade capture.
Comments: Now here is a return to the old form that has been absent in the last few books (well, bar 'Excession' that is). The mix of dark humour, intriegue and a plot that twists and turns. Not to mention the interleaved plot that requires a little memory and mental agility from the reader to keep track of who is what. It is a clever premise too, one that has extra nuances for those who have read the Culture books and yet still can be happily read by those unfamiliar with them and still they get a good book.
It is perhaps slightly disappointing that the link with the Culture wasn't made more explict and that we didn't get more of an exploration of what methods the Culture considers acceptable in it's quest to do good on the Galactic scale. But that is a minor quibble in what is otherwise a great work. It isn't as labyrinth and byzantine as works like 'The Bridge' or 'Use of Weapons' but it's plot line is nicely complicated into two tales with a third tale being told in the background of the first two, so it isn't simple either.
Even more satisfying are the things it doesn't tell you explicitly, but rather hints at and lets you work out for yourself. All in all I really enjoyed this one and it is nice to see Iain back on form after the disappointing 'Whit' and 'A Song of Stone'. Finally the title is an interesting cipher to the book and each tale is an inversion of the other. A point that the summary doesn't really show due to it's brevity. But a goodly part of the fun of the book is seeing how the two stories are the same, but mirror images...