I enjoyed The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu, so when I saw that the sequel (The Straits of Galahesh) was out, I bought it right away. Quick reminder for anyone who hasn't read Winds: the Aramahn are people with the power to commune with spirits (hezhan) and can use this ability to fly airships; the Landed are the race of people who rule but who do not have this same power.
Overall, I was happy with Straits. Though it's a long book, it was a quick read. There are some books I've read lately that have sat on my table for days before I got around to finishing them but this book wasn't one of those. I did have to refer to the glossary from time to time to remind myself of some of the specialized vocabulary (e.g. types of hezhan), but that was easy to do. I'm actually quite grateful for the glossary because there are a lot of new terms in this novel, and it's been a while since I read Winds.
I'll admit to not remembering EVERY character (it's been a while since I read Winds), but I remembered the main characters and could figure out most of the rest from context. I was impressed with the female characters last time, especially as these books were written by a man. I still liked Atiana (the main female viewpoint character, a Landed woman) quite a bit, but there weren't as many strong female characters in this book as in the previous volume. Atiana's sister Ishkyna gets more time on the page in Straits, but we're never really inside her head. Other female characters also have only supporting roles.
One of the chief villains is female (Sariya) and I go back and forth between two different opinions of her. On the one hand, she's a classic manipulator who associates herself with a powerful man and steers him towards helping her achieve her own ends; we've seen villains like this in other books. On the other hand, she is not all-powerful and her motives are not always clear. So we don't know whether or not Atiana should trust her. I like that Sariya has weaknesses, and I guess she couldn't have manipulated Hakan (ruler of Yrstanla, a neighboring land) if she'd been a man. At least, not in the same way.
There are really three viewpoint characters in this book: Atiana, Nasim, and Nikandr. So some of the lesser female presence comes from Rehada (an Aramahn woman featured in the previous volume) being replaced by Nasim as a viewpoint character.
As for the multiple viewpoints, I thought this was pretty well-balanced. Usually there are about two chapters dedicated to any one character before a switch; there are something like 80 chapters in all. A lot happened to each of the three main characters during the same periods of time, and Beaulieu does a good job of allocating pages to each storyline. Also, the storylines intersect and events affecting one character also affect the others. A lot of chapters end with cliffhangers, but I actually think this is a good thing. You know the characters are in peril and you want to keep reading to find out what happens next.
I haven't said much about the male characters. Nikandr is still sympathetic, though he's a little bit of a do-gooder here - making peace with former enemies and trying to heal children afflicted with a wasting disease. Agreeing to command ships to protect the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya (the country ruled by the Landed, and modeled on czarist Russia) even though his family is not in favor. Etc. But, he's not always successful in his healing attempts. He gets short with Atiana when he finds out she's planning to marry someone else (for political reasons), then regrets it. Sometimes he gets knocked out in fights. So he's not perfect. And that's a good thing. I'm a little tired of reading about heroes who win every fight and always know exactly the right thing to do.
Nasim is also fairly sympathetic. He recruits Sukharam and Rabiah, two other children, to aid him in his quest to stop Muqallad (a villain not already mentioned) and Sariya, although then he's hesitant to use them. I guess I can see why he needs his companions; he can't touch the hezhan himself anymore, but can through others, and both of his companions are able in that regard. In a way, this serves to differentiate Nasim from Khamal, his past incarnation. Khamal regularly used children, even turning them into ahkoz (facially disfigured children who are bonded with fire spirits), killing them if need be. Nasim is reluctant to do such things, so even though he *is* Khamal, he's also not Khamal. Being young, and having spent most of his life between the corporeal world and that of the hezhan, he is also inexperienced, and he makes some mistakes, so he's also not perfect.
Beaulieu has killed off major characters before, though I have a feeling Nikandr and Atiana will stick around until the end of the series. Still, because they had flaws and weren't omnipotent, I wasn't always sure how they were going to get out of sticky situations.
I've spent a long while talking about characters. What else? I believe this book is meant to be the middle volume of a trilogy, but I don't think it suffers from the usual "middle volume syndrome." While some big problems have not been solved by the end of the book, others are. So stuff still happens, and it's important to the flow of the series. There's enough content that it couldn't really be folded into other volumes. (That's not to say that the book stands on its own, you definitely need to read The Winds of Khalakovo first!)
I really didn't find all that many grammar or editing problems. Part of that may have been getting caught up in the story. But in a book of this size, if I can only find about three specific instances that inspired me to nitpick, well, that's an accomplishment on the part of Beaulieu and his editor that's deserving of mention.
I haven't said much about magic or plot. Magic is basically the same as in the last volume, with the Aramahn being able to call on the hezhan, and the Landed (some women, at least) being able to take the dark, which allows them to see events occurring far away and communicate with others who are distant (usually by possessing rooks). I've seen magic that's physically draining in other books, but not a lot that's been physically uncomfortable. There are other risks to taking the dark, as well, including losing oneself in the aether, never to return to one's body. At any rate, it's not simple; there are real costs to magic and it's not always an easy way out.
Also interesting with respect to magic is that previously, taking the dark had primarily been for the Landed, whereas now Ushai, an Aramahn, can do it, and communing with the hezhan had been for the Aramahn, but now Nikandr gains the ability to do that. We don't see the consequences of that in this volume, but I'm sure that we'll hear about it in the next one.
The plot was pretty complex, with a lot of switching allegiances. I could follow most of these; every once in awhile a character would do something I didn't really understand, but it was usually made clear after a couple of chapters. I was surprised several times, but that's a good thing. I hate it when I can predict the ending of a book well in advance, and I definitely couldn't here.
Overall, I'd definitely recommend The Straits of Galahesh, but start with The Winds of Khalakovo first, if you haven't read that one already.