A few years after the paperback first came out (1998), I happened to see an excerpt online (in 2000 or so), and was immediately taken with it. For many years, I asked for this book as a Christmas present, but I finally bought it myself in about 2003 or so, and I read it every now and then to enjoy it all over again.
This is part of Ms. Lackey's Bardic Voices series, but you don't have to read any of the other books to understand what's going on; that's a good thing, especially if you pick up a middle or an end book and the publisher doesn't bother you tell you those things. (In this case, Baen plainly shows that this is Book IV of the Bardic Voices series.)
It's hard to say what initially drew me to this story and why it continues to do so, but let me give you first things first.
Tal Rufen is a constable, walking the beat in the city of Haldene. Haldene is a bit of a backwater, with its share of down-on-their-luck people, those trying to eke out a living as best they can.
It's an icy night as Rufen is on the scene of a grisly murder of a street singer. She's been practically disemboweled with a knife, and the murderer...well, he jumped into the nearby river, drowning himself.
As Rufen begins to dig into this case, another two cases, with similar victims and murderer who always commit suicide after their deed, are practically thrown into his lap. He suspects that the similarities - lower-class women and a three-sided stiletto - point to a serial killer. But his superior doesn't believe it, and doesn't want Rufen to pursue his hunch.
That a three-sided stiletto is used in certain Church rituals might have something to do with it.
Rufen is one of only a handful of constables in their area who actually cares about his job, and when one of the killings happens on his beat, he decides to pursue it despite what his superior tells him.
So he quits his job and goes to the capital of Kingsford, where he hopes to impress a Justiciar-Mage into helping him find the killer, as the killer seems to be headed toward Kingsford...
My Take On It
As always with Ms. Lackey's tales, the characters are quite interesting. Tal Rufen is a caring constable as is typical of these types of stories. But what's more interesting is his obsession with finding the killer; he doesn't bemoan his superior, he takes action, action he's not sure will amount to anything.
He's surprised when he goes to Kingsford and is brought to High Bishop Ardis, whose cousin is the king of this kingdom. Ardis has a very strong personality and is a fairly strong mage; maybe this is why I like this so much - because I connected with Ardis.
When Ardis was younger, her father wanted her betrothed to one of his cronies - for political or trade reasons. Ardis was 16 at the time, and even then was headstrong. She suggested going into the church, and her father acquiesced. As her betrothed was about five times her age, she didn't care.
Here's another part I liked; she has doubts, when Rufen comes on the scene, about why she became "betrothed" to the Church (think of priests and nuns) and whether she should give it up. That she's unsure of herself adds to the complexity of the character.
Now, if you're the type who doesn't want to know who the killer is, don't bother picking up this book. If you'd like to see what might drive a killer - who maybe was a hedonist before this but certainly not a killer - then you might want to give this try. We get into the head of the killer not directly, but through a helpmate of his. That the killer would trust someone else...well, let's just say the helpmate kind of walked into the middle of things...and talked with calm and coolness to keep from being killed himself.
There's also a richness of detail of the environs without Ms. Lackey cramming every last little detail down your throat. The contrast between what Rufen had to deal with Haldene and what he deals with in Kingsford is like night and day, and he's rightly befuddled by it all for a little while.
It ends as I thought it would, but it makes sense. The ending is foreshadowed a chapter or two before, although there's some heart-stopping moments near the end. I won't go into it, but to see and feel what happened to the victims...tune in tomorrow for...
Sorry. I just had to do that.
Ms. Lackey gets a tad wordy here and there, and she sometimes has a character get up on a soapbox, but it's not overly done. This is a very readable tale with some not-too-deep psychological insights, so have at it, if that's what you're looking for.