Warnings: War, Killing, Sex? Oh man, that sound worse than it is.
Series: 2/3 in the Trial of Blood and Steel
This book surprised me with how much I liked it, compared to the first in the series, "Sasha". Many of the characters that Shepherd put some time into introducing appeared and played more important roles in the plot in this book. Jaryd and Sofy in particular became much more interesting people, and I was always pleased to see a chapter from one of their points of view.
Usually in books with multiple main characters, I get annoyed when the perspective switches from one to another because it seems to inevitably happen right after some major cliffhanger. I didn't find that to be the case in this story, which could be a result of better timing on Shepherd's part, or because his characters were so competent. I love a competent character!
More importantly, I thought all of the characters were very believable as people. They all had faults, although I was able to forgive all of them with startling ease. Sasha, the main character, is an excellent example of a fanatically cool but realistic lady. She is tough, powerful and in control, but she's well aware of her own weaknesses, and has made peace with them. However she also has a lot of rage, that can result in a really masterful sword-fight or her getting into serious trouble (depending on where she is). She's a delight to read about, and the most compelling reason I decided to read the second book in this series.
As far as female characters go, I think Shepherd is one of the most feminist male writers I have ever seen. One thing I often finding missing from even the most detailed fantasy societies, even ones with female main characters, is an admission of gender politics. Shepherd doesn't shy away from this aspect. He shows how confining gender roles can be, as well as the cultural forces that keep them in place, which gives his world a great deal more depth, and makes me like the author himself.
The book Petrodor also provides an in detail look at the interplay if Lenay and Torovan politics and religion that were only glimpsed in the first book. This is a place I think Shepherd's skills as an author really shine. You know how Tolkien has just books and books of background information from his Lord of the Rings Trilogy? I get the impression Shepherd has just as much (or could certainly write just as much) about this series.
Varathane, Nasi-Keth and Goren yai are the primary religions mentioned in the series, and I have nothing but respect for the way they are portrayed in this book. While Shepherd's treatment of the puritanical Varathane religion can seem harsh at times, I think he makes good effort to show it matters less what you believe in than how you chose to practice it. There are some great questions asked in this book about the role and value of religion, so if you don't find hypothetical questions about imaginary (if familiar) religions comfortable, steer clear of this book.
The plot in Petrodor isn't too much to write home about, for the same reason Sasha's plot wasn't. Neither book provides a real ending to the primary conflict. It's not very satisfying to read all about these great characters and this great plot when nothing is really resolved at the end. Not only that it feels like Shepherd built up the conflicts of the first two books to create this facsimile of moving forward in the plot, but he's saving the actual meat until the last book. I would prefer if he had given us three complete books instead of two prequels. For that reason I reserve judgement about such things until I read the final book
That being said, I do look forward to the last book, if only because it feels like I'm only reading one book and I've finished the first two parts. The characters are engaging and Shepherd's world is too wonderful to not know what happens to it. Sadly I left my copy at home, so I'll have to wait a whole week to find out.