This is the third book in The Tale of the Five. The first, The Door into Fire, was written in 1979. The Door into Shadow was written in 1984. This one in 1992. At the end of this one, it says there's a fourth book coming, The Door into Starlight, but it's still not been written. I had read the first two, but long enough ago that I only had vague memories. If memory serves, they are as good as this one, they'd help in understanding this one a bit (though not totally necessary), and they might actually be easier to get, since they (Fire and Shadow that is) in an omnibus called The Sword and the Dragon in 2002.
This is a world that is so intensely appealing that I find it genuinely painful that I've reached the end of the book. It does have flaws -- from made-up languages that are just too hard to pronounce and get in the way to plot elements that don't seem fair and magic that doesn't seem to be bounded by much. It's not so much about the story itself as about the characters it illuminates and the attitudes of the world. There's one character in particular that I'm really painfully infatuated with, but all the other heroes and their associates are folks I'd really like to know. I wouldn't actually want to live in a world where life in general is that hard, but I wish I could live in a world with these attitudes toward love. We assume there are individuals who harbor jealousy, but the culture that makes a virtue of it seems absent. Multiple marriage is perfectly acceptable, as is sex outside of marriage, and if two people love each other, their genders are no barrier. This world also has a Goddess whose is present but whose influence is limited in a way that is partially explained and makes sense. Rulers actually rule for the benefit of their countries. Their people can know their leaders and trust them. In so many ways, it is what a world should be.
9 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
I'm time constrained here, so this will not be complete.
As we open our story, Freelorn is completing a ritual to renew and bring life to the land when he receives an arrow through the heart. Herewiss, the man with the Fire (magic), a super-powerful mage, puts paid to a major incursion of Reavers by moving a mountain. While Lorn is fighting over whether he really dies, he is told by the Lion Healhra, the father of his line, that he must stop running and take up his kingdom. Along the way, he meets a small party including the leader of the Reavers, and actually talks to them, and learns that the reason they keep attacking is that the land they live in is even harsher than this one, and they're starving. And Lorn realizes there is empty land on their side of the mountains, land that will support the nomadic Reavers very well but won't support farms -- and he makes an agreement that the Reavers can come and live in this area, in exchange for and end to their raiding. Lorn receives a disguise from Iftgan, the queen of Darthen, the other main kingdom, which is to help him make his way alone into the capital of Arlen, his own kingdom, so he can enter Lionhall, complete his Initiation to be king, and hopefully find his father's sword. Along the way, he meets the woman he'd made pregnant and abandoned years ago. He'd been told that the child had died, but when he dispels the disguise, hoping for reconciliation, she's just pissed.
While this is going on, things are getting weirder for Segnbora and Hasai the dragon. Hasai becomes more real, while Segnbora starts to become shadowy, and they end up going to convince the other dragons that they have to stop staying on the sidelines and take sides in the war that's developing between the humans. Cillmod, Lorn's half brother who is on the throne of Arlen, has become the puppet of the sorcerer Rian who is himself the puppet of the Shadow (entropy personified, Death, the Evil Adversary of the Goddess), and part of Lorn's acceptance of his role is to force Cillmod from the throne. The current ruler of the Dragons, who holds the Draconic Name and thus total control over the dragons, is not willing to join the fight. The dragons are torn between something they really want and something they really fear. When things come to a head, Segnbora, who has been given her own version of the Draconic Name by the Gate, forces an Assemblage and a fight which will mean that the current dragon chieftan will have to die. As Dithra is dying, she finally consents to go mdaha to Segnbora, and to make Segnbora sdaha not just to her but to all the dragons. Then Segnbora cuts her shadow free and all the dragons -- not just the ones who were alive (sdaha) now, but all the ones who had died and were only alive in spirit (mdaha) since they dragons came to this world when the Shadow killed their own, take physical form.
On the other side, Herewiss and Sunspark personally fight Rian a couple of times, including once during the big battle. Herewiss almost loses and dies, but Sunspark comes to the rescue, destroying the big sorcery that is killing a lot of the Darthene army. Rian is too much the Shadow to die. The Shadow rises up and seems to have won, but Lorn stabs himself with his sword and becomes the Lion, and the Lion and the Eagle together fight the avatar of the Dark and destroy it. Lorn is supposed to have died doing this, as Healhra did when Arlen was founded, but seems to have bargained with the Goddess (offstage) to be allowed to come back.
Lorn is officially acknowledged as king. Herewiss refuses to be chief minister -- he has the Goddess' business to do, awakening fire in more men (Fire has been exclusively the province of women for a long time, when once it was a gift of all humans, and restoring this state will push the Shadow farther down) -- and Lorn reconciles with Cillmod and makes him the Minister. All of the Five, together with Eftgan and her own loved Wyn, get married. The Goddess shows up during the wedding dance, revealing herself to the new married, accepting the ritual invitation to marry in, though she will only be briefly present. She explains that they, the Five and humans in general, are in fact her weapons in the war against the Shadow. They appear to be ready for some well earned living heavily ever after, but the Goddess has hinted that they will be called upon again.
Sunspark, lovely Sunspark, frequently displays power but doesn't hugely move the plot along, since he's kind of a sidekick to Herewiss. But he is delightfully mischievous, extremely appealing, and grows through the book from a creature only halfway in love with the wizard who bound him to a true lover not only of Herewiss but of Herewiss' friends as well.