The world of Makhras is made up of many different towns, empires, territories, etc. and each of these is peopled by it's own unique society with their own traditions, religions, ways of life and behaviour. Mainly they keep to themselves except for trading and capturing each other as slaves, at least those who keep slaves. Jebel Rum is the runt in his family and when his father, the very respected town executioner announces that he will be retiring after a 30 year career, he only mentions Jebel's two older brother's as hopefully succeeding him in the contest that will be thrown to find the new executioner one year from that day. Jebel is fraught with shame, he has been dishonoured in his warrior society. With nothing left to loose he seeks a quest to a dangerous god's lair faraway where it is promised he can receive invincibility if he makes it there only by land and brings a slave to offer to the god as a sacrifice. Then he would return and win the contest or at least die with honour on the quest.
I'm going to start right off by saying this is very different than anything Shan has written before and unfortunately it didn't quite win me over. There were times I was very into the story, which I think just had much more potential than where Shan went with it. Other times, the story came over as very heavy-handed. The second main character, the slave, is a religious, non-violent person who explains all the different cultures they meet as they journey on and while he dare not say anyone is less equal than another in his one God's eyes he would stand by and let an aggressor tear him to pieces or take his friends and neighbours away as slaves rather than break any rule of his religion by defending himself. I had a hard time knowing, at times, if Shan was writing this character as an ideal or was using him as the extreme opposite example to Jebel and his people, which I'm sure, I think, was supposed to be the point. Heavy-handed with the morals as he was. Jebel starts off as an unlikable nasty piece of work, who thinks slaves are not human and possibly less worthless than animals. When meeting the other cultures, he quickly decides they are contemptible, stupid or crazy because of what they deem important compared to his own clan.
It is these two strange characters who embark on the hellish journey of Jebel's quest which is full of dark dangers, terrible creatures and death-inducing terrain. Certainly an interesting story that kept me reading. Plenty of action, violence and creepiness. The plot could be simply broken down to the basic fantasy quest but covered up by adding dark elements such as an executioner, cannibals, rocks that digest people and a colony of people who live with and depend upon vampire bats, to name a few. Not Shan's best work but worth a read by fans, at the least.