I read this book about 26-Oct-2013. I've read this book before. The book is copyright 2003. This note was last modified Wednesday, 30-Oct-2013 20:56:19 PDT.
This note contains spoilers for the book.
Haven't read this since my last read-through on the manuscript, and I have very fond memories of it.
And indeed it stands up quite well. It's a beautifully twisted alternate history, with Arthur the Tyrant in the historical background, and his defeat by Mordred the Great (when his attempts to kill all the children, to get Mordred, fail). And The Order (that is, the Order of Crown, Shield, and Dragon) is a great creation as well (founded, and still run, by Morgaine).
I'm guessing this to be set vaguely around the 18th century, but it's not made terribly clear. They don't have cannon or even pistols, but they do have pretty good sailing ships. There's a no-go zone in a lot of Europe (hinting at apocalyptic battles), and a thriving (expansionist) Islamic Caliphate right about where it should be. And, despite this having been written fairly shortly after the 9/11 attack on the USA, the Caliphate is not in any particular way evil, merely self-interested (in exactly the same way the Pendragon dynasty is).
And, of course, the characters. The protagonist, arguably, is the team of Cully, Bear, and Joshua. They're all Knights of the Order, and two still bear live swords (swords containing a human soul). Bear carries the Nameless (which, as I read it, contains the voluntarily surrendered soul of Gautama Buddha; a "white" sword), and Joshua carries the Khan (which pretty clearly contains the trapped soul of Genghis Khan; a "red" sword). Live swords are...extremely powerful. Sinking-an-island powerful. Cully used to carry "Jenn", but had left the order. The action pretty much starts with him being drafted back in.
And then there's Niko the fisherman. We see him as a fisherman for a while, and then discover that his father was killed by a red sword that got tangled in their nets. Further investigation suggests there are eleven more new red swords around—somebody has started making them (the process was thought lost). This is hugely exciting, in a not-good geopolitical sense. And in an attempt to find out more (visting "the Wise" on Panteleria) Niko gets bound to the sword, and at least temporarily drafted into the Order.
Let's see; Admiral DuPuy rates a mention, too. He's at a desk job, and hates not being at sea, but is working hard and doing his best anyway. Though he has some limitations in viewpoint that become apparent later. Also he has a number of clever schemes, none actually realized, by which he intends at various points to disadvantage an enemy by the exact place and way in which he kills himself.
The hardcover edition (what I actually read this time) is very badly copy-edited. There are lots of extra words, incomplete edits, and some interesting spell-checking insanity (my favorite is the seamen storing stuff in their "teabags"). In my opinion standards in publishing have fallen drastically in the last two decades, and this is a fairly recent book; and Baen Books is not perhaps among the best publishers at these production processes. Which is to say, this was bad enough to annoy me, but sadly not really that far out of line with modern publishing practice.