In this sequel to Hawk Quest, Vallon, older, harder and perhaps even wiser, has become one of Byzantium’s great generals. Emperor Alexius is deeply suspicious of all brilliant and possibly ambitious generals, and has the perfect assignment for this one. Vallon will escort a diplomatic embassy into the ancient, legendary region of China, his own specific task to obtain the secret of Imperial Fire, a weapon said to outdo Byzantium’s own deterrent of Greek fire. Failure will mean degradation or execution. More likely the whole expedition will vanish forever. Treachery accompanies him, but Vallon will have the advantage of old comrades: Hero, physician; Wayland, hawk master; Wulfstan the Viking.
Soon detached from the main mission, Vallon and the escort face an extraordinary journey. The sparse inhabitants are wary, cheating, hostile or simply intent on massacre and plunder. Terrain of beauty and terror, mountains so high as to inhibit breath, desert sand dunes that change shape when the wind blows, impassable lakes, and underground rivers into darkness: all is told with a fund of original and striking metaphors. So far, so thrilling. What makes this novel exceptional is an in-depth characterisation seldom found in the adventure genre. The ruthless author does not hesitate to eliminate anyone, however endearing or charismatic in the story; this, he tells you, is how it must be. If the dwindling band reaches its fabled destination, the masterly centuries-old Chinese bureaucracy will surely have Vallon foaming with rage and frustration.