You know how it is. The Dark Lord oppresses the kingdom until the One True Heir comes forward and defeats him and there is much rejoicing, except for everyone who has had friends or family killed, or who has had their homes destroyed and now has to work for room and board or who is starving and ill.
But then in the sequel, a new Dark Lord arises, or the old one returns and again there is fighting and disease and magical firestorms. And at the end, rather than try and reconcile with their enemies and bring them into society, they're driven into the mountains, or under the ground, or across the sea and shunned. Dark Ones they're called. Evil. Orcs.
And no one ever asks if maybe the problem isn't that evil kings are bad, but that all kings are bad. The problem isn't the dark ones, but the ones who say they're better than us - the true heirs.
Anyway, Juliet E McKenna is asking some of those questions in Irons in the Fire. Lascar, known from her previous novels as fertile ground for mercenaries and spies has been wracked by war since the fall of the old empire 20 generations ago. Since then the Dukes have been competing to become High King. Worse still, one of them managed it briefly, before it all fell apart again, so they know it can be done. So the wars go on and as always it's the commoners who suffer.
Then a group of exiles, or maybe emigres is a better word, come up with a plan to end the wars. If all the ex-pats they stop sending money home and instead pay the mercenaries not to fight, the Dukes will have to stop the conflict. This won't work, but is enough for an intelligencer to put them in contact with others, who improve the plan; if they combine that with what is essentially a general strike perhaps that will do it?
As they work through the problems it becomes clear; at every step the problem is the Dukes. So rather than paying mercenaries not to fight perhaps they need to be targeted better...
Mckenna's world has always been Early-Modern-Without-Gunpowder rather than Medieval*. With printing and widespread literacy, a rising merchant class and peasants leaving the farms to seek fortune in the cities it's clearly ripe for revolution. There's even a new kind of magic that doesn't rely on being mageborn; anyone can learn it! How very democratic.
If I have a problem with the plot it's this: I can't figure out how they're financing the revolution. I know how they're supposed to be doing it - with ex-pat money diverted from being sent home. But it doesn't make sense. Up until the moment they reveal themselves, striking at the northernmost Duchy, they've kept what's going on very quiet. So how did they convince people to hand over the cash?
"We have a plan to end conflict back in Lascar."
"Sounds good! Can I help?"
"Sure! Rather than send home the money to support your family you can give it to us to stop the fighting!"
"How will you stop the fighting?"
"I can't tell you. But it'll really work!"
"If it's alright with you I'll pass."
Apart from that the book is pretty good. There's a lot of sneaking around and plotting and changing plans and recruiting, as might be expected. And of course we end just as the revolution kicks off and the 5 remaining Dukes realise what's going on. The story continues in Blood in the Water and concludes with Banners in the Wind. Yes it's a fantasy trilogy. We wouldn't want to be too revolutionary now, would we?
Read this: If you want to read some fantasy with plenty of intrigue and logistics and no true heirs.
Don't read this: If you don't read fat fantasy trilogies.
Note: Although I have read 9 other Juliet E McKenna books, I have not read the sequels to this one.
* In the lands of the old Tormalin Empire, anyway. Other parts of the world are weirder.