This, the second in the 'Watergivers' trilogy, picks up exactly where the previous one left off, in the immediate aftermath of battle, and the surviving characters are all plunged into crisis without preamble. Having grumbled in my review of book 1 that so many major characters died, my complaint this time is over the number who miraculously survived, despite being believed dead. I suppose there's just no pleasing some people. Given all these unlikely reincarnations, maybe we will yet see Lyneth and Moiqa? Well, maybe not.
The events of the previous book and the background of the Scarpen cities and their rainlords and stormlords are sketched in rather briefly here and there, but it might not be enough for anyone coming back to the story after a long gap. The pace is rapid from the start and never lets up, so anyone who's not up to speed on the story so far is liable to get left behind.
All our main characters are trapped in situations not of their making. Terelle is a prisoner of Russet's water-painting magic, Shale is forced to work alongside the devious Taquar, while Ryka and Kaneth are slaves of the Reduners, the dune nomads. This creates real tension, and the plot races along as they all work to set themselves free (with varying degrees of success), although not without useful dialogues which serve to keep the reader well informed about all the various options. It is a little surprising, actually, how often these people sit down in the midst of dire circumstances to talk at great length, and this reaches ridiculous levels near the end when Shale and Ravard hold a full conversation in the middle of a massive battle.
The world-building is necessarily less detailed in this book, but we do move out of the Scarpen cities and into some of the other regions. We saw a little of the Gibber plains last time out, but this time we also see the Red Quarter (home of the dune tribes) and the White Quarter (the salt plains of the Alabaster folk), and both of these are interesting scenically and in their societal structures, as well as giving us some insight into the economics of Quartern life. We haven't yet seen the coast or the mysterious Khromatis region, but perhaps that will come in book 3.
It is nice to learn more about the indigenous lifeforms, notably the seriously scary ziggers, truly the stuff of nightmares, and the ubiquitous pedes, used for both riding and carrying. Rather delightfully, the pedes turn out to have personalities and memory, and even affection for humans who treated them kindly in the past, which is unexpectedly charming. I never would have thought I'd consider giant creepy-crawlies in terms of 'Ah, how sweet!' but that's fantasy for you.
We also learn something of the various religions - the dune gods of the Reduners, the One True God of the Alabasters, and the delightfully earthly origin of the Sungod worshipped in the Scarpen cities, the giver of water-powers. This is hugely entertaining stuff. I particularly liked the thought tossed out, almost as an aside, that the innate water-sensing ability is god-given and not magical at all, while the power of water painting is sorcery and therefore totally evil. This is, of course, a question which should be considered by all fantasy writers (and readers, for that matter) - what exactly is magic anyway?
The characters continue to be interesting and (sometimes) to behave in unexpected ways. The changes to Kaneth as a result of his injuries are particularly intriguing, although his rapid recovery is slightly implausible. Most of the main characters are likeable and believable. The bad guys are still a little too bad to be truly credible, but on the whole (Taquar and Ravard in particular) they have enough depth to be more than just cartoons. I particularly like Kaneth and Ryka (and Kaneth's friend), and all the squabbling rainlords (even Laisa and Senya). And I love the slightly bonkers Iani. And Shale and Terelle are OK too. Shale has grown up big time in this book, although still with an adolescent's peculiar combination of angst and over-confidence, and Terelle is getting there too.
Ravard is especially interesting. I don't suppose the revelation of his identity surprises anyone, but it's still fascinating to see the man he's become. I do have an issue with his behaviour, however. I'm not a psychologist, but I would have expected a boy who was abducted and enslaved, and who then worked his way up to leadership amongst his abductors would have wanted to show the strength of his loyalty by being even more committed to the tenets of his new society than everyone else. The Reduners espouse slavery and rape as well as bravery and warrior skills, yet Ravard keeps no slaves and is remarkably gentle and tolerant with Ryka. In fact, his whole relationship with Ryka felt quite unbelievable to me, given his age and the ethos of the society. Choosing an older woman, and visibly pregnant too? Odd behaviour. Choices of this type would be more consistent with a mature, self-confident character, which Ravard definitely isn't. And yet, the author makes even this bizarre arrangement seem quite understandable.
The magic system is coming into its own now. I was astonished at the number of inventive ways that Shale could find to use his (rather limited) skills to good effect in battle. Who would have thought that a shower of rain would be so effective a weapon? I very much like that all the rainlords have different levels of ability. This makes for a much more realistic type of magic (if there is such a thing, of course). Terelle's water painting is becoming exceptionally convenient from a plot point of view, but this type of magic was flagged up from early in book 1, so it's not a cheat, any more than Shale hurling water around is - both are just extensions of a form of magic already in existence.
The book ends, inevitably, with a huge battle (or perhaps a series of battles would be more accurate). I found it a bit difficult to work out exactly where everyone was (the map on my Kindle version is minute) so I was a bit unsure who was going up the hill and who was going down. After a while I stopped trying to work it out and let it flow over me, but then I found myself surprised when Ryka bumped into the Reduners again. The author is remarkably good at gently reminding the reader of key information, and she also describes the scenery very clearly and succinctly, so the fault is mine for not paying proper attention. This was the only point in this or the previous book where I went into 'wait - what?' mode. Not that there aren't twists in the plot, of course, but mostly it's very clear who's where and what's going on.
The book ends with the immediate crisis resolved, but the big long-term problem (the shortage of stormlords to provide water) is still hanging by a thread, and everything is now in place for the final showdown. The Reduners are still looking to return to the pre-stormlord era of random rain, while Shale and Terelle try to find a new source of water power, Ryka and Kaneth head for the dunes, and Laisa, Senya and the priest manoeuvre for their own interests. And Taquar is still around, and will undoubtedly come into play again very soon. It's been a long time since I enjoyed a series so much that I wanted to move straight from one book to the next, but this is one that I just can't put down. Four stars. [First written August 2011]