Young as he is, Senrid Montredaun-An isn't a child... or even a real king. No, he really can't be, when his foolish, power-hungry, ruthless uncle of a regent lords over Marloven Hess, a country where war culture is reminiscent of the ancient Spartans. Senrid looks about twelve (though actually fifteen)--denied his rightful military training and beaten into obedience on a regular basis--and relies on his brains, wits and aptitude for magic to try and outmaneuver his cruel Uncle Tdanerend.
When Senrid was a young child, his mother was murdered, and his father, though a fair ruler, was not the same after that, almost welcoming the knife in the back by his brother Tdanerend. Senrid grew up being fed the idea that both his parents were cowards--'weak' was the word his uncle called them--and that morality was only a tool to justify the actions of a powerful king. As a result, when he casually stumbles upon the royal castle in tiny, neighbouring Vasande Leror, Leander is perplexed, and slightly unnerved, by Senrid's skewed ideas about right and wrong. Leander, a fellow king, serves as Senrid's foil--though slightly older, Leander's background parallels his, aside from sharing ancestry several centuries back: both are orphans, a tyrant at some point poisoning both their thrones. Yet, Leander's Vasande Leror seems the exact opposite of what Marloven Hess is--a quiet, peaceful country sloppily armed only for self-defense, and certainly not seeking to conquer. Everything about Leander would be what Senrid's uncle would call 'weak', but there is no mistaking the respect and loyalty the Leroran citizens have for him, something Tdanerend never got. Fear and thirst for power perhaps, but never respect.
We learn how this poor boy--emotionally and physically abused, often forgetting to eat or sleep as he tries to stay ahead of his uncle in learning magic or mustering the little training he can get on sneak--wrestles with history's toughest questions. Believing 'white magic' to be slow, cautious and less effective, Senrid educates himself in black magic, a potentially destructive type favoured by Tdanerend and the timeless enemy, Norsunder. I've not read many books where I was kept guessing if Senrid was 'good' or not... or maybe that's another one of those words like 'justice' or 'morality'. I often found myself questioning his motives, scrutinizing his psychology and cheering on his steadfast determination to overthrow his uncle.
Not that the book is all business and no fun--far from it. Not if Kitty, Leander's pain-in-the-neck stepsister, has to say anything about it, or CJ Sherwood, the loudmouthed impersonator of Senrid's cousin to get behind the scenes in nasty Marloven Hess. With plenty of inventive insults, Kitty's knack for finding trouble, a high sense of adventure and a more noble cause, the novel is extremely engaging and at times darkly humourous.
Calling this novel coming-of-age would be a misnomer if one was expecting the usual themes in coming-of-age novels. But with exploring ideas like morality, justice, free will and most of all, kingship, Senrid learns to understand the world around him as well as himself--and if that is the case, then this is 'bildungsroman' in the purest sense of the word.