This is a standalone novel.
This is the earliest of Briggs' books that I've read so far. I had a little feeling that the plot was being wielded as a blunt instrument early in the story, and the magic seemed a bit arbitrary, as though it could do whatever the author needed without a clear rationale. But I still found characters that clicked with me, and once I was hooked on the characters, I was definitely there for the story. It read fast and smooth, and had me really keyed up for the climax, as I was convinced that first one and then another thing that was going to make me very unhappy was inevitable, and then managed to work things out OK. It's not as good as the Hurog books or the Mercy Thompson books. I can live with the fact that I don't get any more after the end of this book; I'm still sad that there isn't another book after Dragon Blood and I'd really be in a bad way if I didn't know there was more Mercy coming. It is a more engaging read than a lot of books out there, though, or at the very least it pushes my buttons.
8 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
Aren just got married yesterday, and she's a very happy girl. She has a vision, as she does now and then; her experience tells her that something bad is likely to happen, but the vision doesn't clearly show what the problem is. She wrestles with telling her husband about it, which would mean telling her that she has the Sight, which might make him hate her, since the people have a very bad attitude about magic, and all she ends up doing is giving him a vague "be careful". It's not enough; raiders come in and kill him and her father and her husband's brother while she hides in the cellar from the raiders. She has a more complete vision of the deed now that it's too late. She also has a weird experience where she sees the magic in the ground around her -- the gold of the old natural wild magic, and the red of the blood magic that bound it to make the land safe for humans. And she sees the blood magic torn away, leaving the wild magic free. There is a massive earthquake that causes a mountain to collapse onto the highway that connects their village to the rest of the kingdom. Filled with guilt, thinking that if she revealed herself she might be able to help people and atone, she reveals herself to the village and makes the more magic-averse into her enemies, but Tolleck the priest restrains them from killing her. Kith was a soldier for the local lord until he lost his left arm. We'll learn eventually that Kith was not just a normal soldier; the blood mage turned him into a berserker. And it's probably going to make him go crazy pretty soon; the only reason he was allowed to return home at all rather than just being killed is that the lord owed him a debt for saving a life. Wandel is a traveling bard. He goes to check on Beresford, the one town farther away down the highway, and discovers that the whole valley is flooded. Kith, Wandel, and Aren go over Hob's Mountain to try to look for refugees from Beresford and see what's up. Aren gets attacked by a nasty magical critter with a lot of teeth that really messes up her arm, but another magical critter partially heals her, and briefly tells her that the thing that attacked her was not a hob. They go on to the city of Auberg, and discover that everyone there was killed by magic at the same time as the earthquake. Aren actually meets the hob, who turns out to be a nice guy, if a little mischievous. He's got fangs, a prehensile tail, and mobile ears. I'm shallow, I love him already. He believes he's the last hob in existence, all the others having been killed when the wild magic was bound. He is bound to the elemental spirit of Hob's Mountain, which messed with his memory to make him able to stand the loss -- hobs are supposed to be gregarious creatures. He tells Aren to call him 'Caefawn' in a way that implies that it's not his name. He makes a deal with the village, a Hob's Bargain, that he will help the village survive; in return, the village has to provide him a bride. Aren agrees, reluctantly, feeling that she's sacrificing herself to save a village full of people who hate her. He starts to teach her about magic. She learns how to see, talk to, call up, and eventually control spirits. The Green Man, reawakened now that the magic is back, is pissed that the village hasn't been honoring him with seasonal festivals. Aren manages to buy him off with promises to do better. She gets a vision that the blood mage who made Kith is coming to kill him. Caefawn goes off to fight him and she has visions of Caefawn hurt and the mage carrying his blood-stained earring. She's in despair -- by this time, she's in love with him -- but calls up and binds a bunch of spirits, thinking to gain the power to face the mage, only to come to recognize that it is binding other spirits that is the essence of the evil of the blood mages. By using this power, she makes herself as bad. She releases her trapped spirits, leaving her exhausted and almost powerless before the bad guy. Caefawn returns to save her, but the mage starts to battle him. But she's discovered the secret of undoing the mage; she starts pulling the spirits he has bound to him away from him. Eventually she manages to release them all, killing the mage, and freeing Kith from the taint. Wandel, who was really the king's assassin and tasked with killing Kith, reprieves him. She marries Caefawn, and we get a brief hint that they lived happily ever after. Some important stuff is not actually mentioned, but it seems to be implied for the reader to see -- 'Caefawn' means a sort of fae trickster, someone who sells you something that's not what it appears to be. I think I was supposed to understand that the visions that appeared to imply that he was killed when he wasn't were the lie he sold, since it set up the conditions where Aren defeated the bad guy. But we never actually explained how the mage came to get his bloody earring while he still lived.