This book picks up right where the third book left (the fourth and fifth books were prequels): the small kingdom of Kavelin barely survived the onslaught of the Dread Empire and is trying to rebuild; the Empire itself lacks good leadership with a lot of parties fighting for the crown: openly and behind the scenes. It does not help any that the barbarian hordes to the south of the Empire began an offensive campaign nobody expected.
Something very disturbing is going on behind the eastern border of the Empire. Another threat emerges which if unstopped quickly can destroy the whole world. The good news is: the eastern army of the Empire has a really good general. The bad news is: quite a few people in Kavelin consider attacking the Empire from the west while it is at its weakest state: they are justified in their opinion that their eastern neighbor will resume its western campaign as soon as they settle the other problems. I also need to mention that Kavelin itself has more than enough internal double-crossings.
The first thing on note: the plot outline I gave about seems like quite a lot. Consider my surprise when I realized the whole book is less than 200 pages. It does contain everything I mentioned - and more; it never feels rushed and it manages be short at that! This is something modern fantasy writers can learn from veterans of the genre. As much as Steven Erikson was inspired by Glen Cook - including this series as well - he did not learn brevity: the shortest of his Malazan book has 800+ pages with the rest being 1000+ page behemoths.
This is the series which improves with each consecutive book. I really enjoyed this one. It was interesting to see the Dread Empire as good guys. Now that I mentioned Steven Erikson, I might as well mention George R.R. Martin. Glen Cook is not shy about killing his major characters, but he always introduces new ones and makes his reader care about them:
as an example, I really rooted for the Empire general of the eastern army I mentioned. Martin kills major characters at the same rate, but I have yet to see a new character from him who would not bore me to tears.
To all the fantasy writers: this is how you write a good tale without appearing rumbling; please take note. This book deserves four solid stars; I eagerly look forward to reading the next book of the series.
This review is a copy/paste of my BookLikes one: http://gene.booklikes.com/post/779025/the-beginning-of-the-and-for-the-dread-empire