After much training Eamon Goodman becomes a member of the Gauntlet, the troops that police and protect the River Realm for the Master. Eamon swears his oath of loyalty, which has some unexpected side-effects, including a brand on his hand and a voice in his head. His achievement is soured when one of his oldest friends is captured as a Wayfarer, the group of traitors and dissidents who support the restoration of the line of kings that were overthrown by the Master 500 years earlier. Immediately promoted Eamon is ordered to the capital with a group of cadets and his friend as a prisoner. On the way his unit is attacked and mostly destroyed. He is captured by Wayfarers and learns that the true King is an old childhood friend, who he’d thought died years ago. Eamon is shown that the Master is a usurper, and told the story of his ancestor, who served the last king and then the Master, and betrayed both. Eamon swears an oath as First Knight and asked to work for the wayfarer cause in the capital. When Eamon arrives in the capital he is quickly promoted though the ranks of the Gauntlet, and gets a nobly-born girlfriend. Will these distractions keep him from serving the King? Will Eamon decide which of his oaths he will keep to?
This traditional fantasy vaguely plays with the idea of moral shades of grey, but never fully commits to it. In this it is rather like the main character, who similarly never seems to commit to either of his causes, or at least only does so temporarily. Eamon is a good man (the pun with his surname is highlighted a few times), because his cadets like him and he doesn’t flog them, and even takes a flogging on their behalf. There are other good men within both the Gauntlet and the Wayfarers. There are also unpleasant individuals who don’t get on with Eamon within both organsiations, though many less of them in the Wayfarers. These less pleasant characters may have their own reasons for what they do, but since they don’t Eamon we don’t get to see that. Over all it is made clear that the Wayfarers are good honest people and the upper echelons of the Gauntlet are bad and corrupted by the Master. There is no exploration of why an untried King would be a better ruler than the tyrannical Master, except that he says his ancestors were. The only thing commending the royalist cause is that Eamon was friends with the King as a kid, and the magic used by King’s Men seems more pleasant than that used by the Master’s people.
The entire story is told through Eamon’s point of view. He’s fairly likeable, except for when he is seduced by the Master’s power, because we aren’t supposed to like him then. He initially seems naïve despite his age. He is quickly promoted for reasons that are never made clear. He’s a capable officer and his men like him, but that doesn’t explain his rapid advancement. There is a suggestion of his rise being foretold, but that doesn’t seem to be relevant. Eamon initially seems to be set up as a double agent, and I was quite interested in that idea. He even has contacts and a loyal sidekick, so I imagined some similarities with a spy story. Disappointingly Eamon never takes action against the Master. Once he’s in capital he sees a lot of bad things, but doesn’t do anything to stop them or even send information to the Wayfarers. He feels uncomfortable about this for a while, angsting over his dual loyalty, while doing as he is told and convincing himself he can’t stop anything. After a while he is distracted by the respect of his new status, and the affections of a noble woman and forgets he was ever supposed to do anything else. The strong bond between him and his loyal ward breaks and Eamon doesn’t really notice this is a problem. If the story were about Eamon not being cut out to be a spy, or being purposefully fickle that would be interesting, but we’re only ever supposed to think he’s a bit misguided, rather than incompetent. If anything the insurgent forces do very well for themselves with no help from Eamon.
This is a fairly low magic story, but there is magic present. It isn’t really explored, which would be fine except that it is used largely for convenience. One side uses red magic, the other side uses blue. Eamon gets the ability to breach other people’s minds after swearing his oath, something that unnerves him at first. He also discovers the ability to heal before being taken by the Wayfarers, and it’s his ability to use this magic –before he’s been inducted to their cause- that seems to convince the King he can be trusted to a prominent position in their organisation. The most supernatural thing is Master, he’s over 500 years old and his voice appears in Eamon’s mind, urging him to violence and loyalty. No one questions what the Master is, which makes sense after 500 years of his rule. He appears to be a man, but must be something more. It’s also not clear how he puts his voice in Eamon’s head, and whether he is actually telepathically communicating with Eamon. When Eamon is with the Wayfarers in their hidden community the voice communicates with him, but surely if the Master knew where he was he would use that information to destroy his enemy the King. There’s the suggestion that Eamon is of great significance to both sides because of his link to his ancestor from 500 years ago, but the nature of this is not made clear. Eamon sees visions of events from that time, but they don’t lead to anything and he can’t control them. Eamon eventually loses his access to the King’s magic because he stops serving the King, suggesting this magic is bestowed someone. The Master seems to know of Eamon’s double loyalty from the start, but doesn’t try and use that and seems happy to let him rise through the ranks. The triumph apparently being the winning of this one man’s loyalty as opposed to gaining the information he has.
There are not many women in this story. The military setting means it’s all male, this being a society where women do not fight. There’s Eamon’s friend Aeryn who is secretly a Wayfarer, and tries to convince him not to join the Gauntlet, but sensibly doesn’t trust him with the truth. She seems important and interesting at first, but disappears from the story after Eamon goes to the capital. The other main female character is Lady Alessia, who becomes Eamon’s girlfriend. She’s never referred to as his girlfriend, presumably that sounds too modern, but they are sleeping together and no one seems to have a problem with that. The morality of sex in this world is also never explored. Eamon is utterly besotted by her, even though his friend tries to warn him. Her loyalties turn out to be different to what Eamon thought, and he immediately spurns her, not seeing the double standard in this at all. Various male characters are interesting, especially some of the Master’s servants and Eamon’s ward. Though the main impression we get of any of them is coloured by Eamon’s opinion, so there’s little exploration of anyone Eamon doesn’t like.
I had trouble getting on with this story because I found it difficult to connect with Eamon. I stopped feeling sympathy for him when it became clear that he wasn’t going do much, and sleepwalked into serving someone he was apparently morally opposed to. If the book ever stepped outside Eamon’s viewpoint, or did a deeper exploration of the morality of his situation. As it is Eamon feels a bit bad about his double loyalty, doesn’t actively betray anyone, then remembers that his ancestor was a traitor and that excuses his behaviour, for some reason. Even at the end Eamon’s hand is forced by the actions of others. The best thing you can say about him is that he truly does care for the people around him, but for me that wasn’t enough to make him compelling or excuse the flaws I felt I was supposed to be excusing.