2013’s War Master’s Gate is the ninth and penultimate volume in the Shadows of the Apt decology.
The Wasp Empire may be short on kindness, egalitarianism, and respect for human rights, but it compensates with warlike resolve and deep reserves. It has failed many times to crush Collegium, but, undaunted, its forces are marching into the Lowlands yet again.
Decades of effort on Stenwald Maker’s part have finally convinced the city-states of the lowlands and some of their inapt neighbouring states that they all have far more to fear from the Empire than they do from each other. In previous attempts to bring Collegium to heel, the Empire tried to exploit local divisions. That will no longer work, thanks to Stenwald’s diplomatic efforts.
But Stenwald’s success in forging a common defense may not work. The lowland alliance is outnumbered and the Empire has easily replaced its earlier losses. The previous effort to conquer Collegium failed thanks to the last-minute deployment of a super-weapon, which worked because the Empire had not known of it and had not prepared any defense against it. Now that it is known, it has lost its edge.
The Empire is willing to flatten Collegium, but it would prefer to add its resources to the Empire’s. Accordingly, the Empire offers Collegium the opportunity to surrender. The only price the Empire demands is unquestioning obedience … oh, and the handover of a few Imperial enemies. The first and foremost of whom is Stenwald Maker himself.
Collegium has to win every time to remain free. The Empire needs to win just once.
Meanwhile, off in the shadowy backwater forests frequented by ancient Mantis clans, Empress Seda and her retinue are questing for Old Power. Traumatized by her past, the only safety Seda sees is utter, complete, universal power. All possible rivals must be subjugated or eliminated.
Seda is the heir to forgotten magics, magics that will give her the power she craves. One last thing is lacking: an ancient relic. She must find it before her rival Cheerwell Maker does.
By the way, the relic is waking and will kill her if she does not find it first.
As noted in previous reviews, camping with Cheerwell Maker is apt to go badly for her mates. It might be that camping with the Empress is even worse. Her retinue lives in constant danger of enemy massacre or death by Empress. Seda has many reasons to be paranoid and is willing to kill anyone who might pose a threat … or who has become expendable.
Cheerwell is sad when her friends die. The Empress has never had friends.
The war situation has developed not necessarily to Collegium’s advantage. There’s one plus: the Empress and Cheerwell are both intent on contacting entities best forgotten, with a strong possibility that everything will go horribly wrong. In which case both Empire and lowlands are toast and no one wins. A draw!
This isn’t exactly a fun instalment of the series, ending as it does on a number of cliffhangers and establishing as it does that this is a universe where wearing a white hat is in no way a guarantee of a happy ending. It is, however, a very exciting book, as on the one hand Collegium is faced with what seems like an unstoppable assault and on the other hand, Seda may be making the whole matter academic by uncorking ultimate evil in a tin. How exactly Stenwald and Cheerwell will save the day (or if they can, at this point) is very much an open question.