This book is... interesting. I've never read anything quite like it before. The story is set in an alternate 9th century Earth and ties together the English, Welsh, and Vikings. After finishing it a week or two ago, I'm still not sure what to think, so I'll just list my impressions:
1. Historical setting feels very authentic and well-researched. Sure, medieval England and the Vikings have been done to death, but Kay gives them new life here. There's no sugar-coating (fans of GRR Martin will feel right at home). And settings are excellently drawn.
2. Excellent prose. Kay has a style all his own. If the character development was better, I'd be calling this literary fiction.
3. Unpredictable plot. Others have said they saw major events coming, but not so for me. And Kay is intelligent and subtle; he gives you something to think about rather than just a quick bit of entertainment.
1. Character development so-so. Some of the main characters are quite good, Aeldred especially. But Ceinion is the stereotypical wise-and-practical cleric, Alun the stereotypical boy-avenging-family, etc. Bern, who gets the largest chunk of page time, was the worst, a distant stranger to me for the entire book. My conclusion is that there are simply too many main characters for a work of this length (my copy just under 500 pages) to sustain.
2. Dialogue not what I'd have expected from such a renowed author. Long scenes where characters tease each other or fight about silly things always feel amateurish to me.
3. Random "romances" springing from nowhere at the end... neither believable nor romantic.
1. I've never read a fantasy book (even historical fantasy, which rarely uses the "save the world" plot) with quite so little at stake. As we're told many times, life is difficult in the northlands... but by the time identifiable villains appear, they're so unambitious and so lacking in passion for their goal that there's little threat to the main characters, beyond the constant danger inherent in living in a violent time period. Aeldred's backstory would have made a far more exciting story, but it's interesting to wonder what Kay's point may have been in writing this story instead.
2. Random asides of several pages giving the life stories of side characters who briefly intersect with the plot... or, in some cases, don't. For instance, we get the life of Jarmina, a girl living in a village near a battlefield; she neither witnesses nor affects the battle in any way. Embedding loosely related short stories into a novel is an odd way to add depth to the setting, if that's what they were meant to do.
3. Random philosophical lectures by the author. To give a brief example: "Time does not pause, for men or beasts, though it might seem to us to have stopped at some moments, or we might wish it to do so at others, to suspend a shining, call back a gesture or a blow, or someone lost." These can go on for paragraphs and to me seemed rather trite.
This is the first of Kay's books that I've read, and since I understand that it's not his best, I'm still looking forward to reading more. It's far from a bad book, and would have been truly great had the character development only been been better. Three stars is a little low for this one, but despite its strengths, for me it was something of a disappointment.