A romance writer gets embedded as a journalist with a group of peacekeepers on a brutal, technologically stunted though strategically important planet and has to deal with a war between the two most powerful ruling trade families? And there’s magic, assassin’s guilds, and lots and lots of sword fighting? Sign me up.
The framing device Smith uses is particularly unique: Belkan Candor is a famous romance novelist from the lush, civilized planet Garden. For some reason, a mysterious and wealthy benefactor pays a lot of money to Belkan’s publisher to send him to the city of Tiers on the planet Sivern to write about the Peacekeepers, a group of dedicated warriors tasked with investigating the crimes among, and preventing a war between, Sivern’s ruling houses.
Sivern is an interesting place, particularly for a foppish dandy like Belkan. Technology is artificially suppressed, leading to a world that’s quasi-medieval, though nano-mages are still allowed. Sivern is also the galaxy’s sole producer of the super-strong ceramic called Sivernite, as well as a decorative plant called Ripplewood. And commerce rules everything, with power held firmly in the grasp of the trade houses. The planet is so vital and powerful, the fact that slavery exists is tolerated for the sake of commerce.
The houses are constantly jockeying for power, status, and influence, as well as the sweet profits of trade, and this competition tends to grind down the poor and powerless of Tiers between its grinding gears–and in Tiers, “poor” and “powerless” means nearly everybody else. This is where the Keepers come in.
It takes Belkan a while to warm up to his new companions, but slowly he learns about their backgrounds, how they ended up in a place like Tiers in a group like the Keepers, and grows to like and trust them. Which is good, because although he’s supposed to be a mere chronicler of events, Belkan ends up becoming an integral part of the Keepers’ investigation into a string of brutal murders in the First House.