With his health failing, the great mage Donn has chosen to pass on his Talents to a new generation: an old era is drawing to a close, a new era about to begin. But with change comes instability. War looms and a rogue church leader threatens to set loose the wild powers of the First City. Donn's children must oppose this man but, also, they must contend with Donn himself: the old mage has not finished with his children yet.
On the run from the religious repression of the mainland, Leeth Hamera joins a group of outcasts on the Serpent's Back, a continually changing island continent in the middle of a lava sea. Leeth has never lived up to the expectations of his wealthy merchant family and his only magical skill is the lowly Talent of bonding with animals. But, as he learns, the greatest Talents can sometimes be the slowest to emerge.
The leader of the outcasts is Chi, son of Donn and the greatest healer of his generation. Chi is in exile for breaking the Embodied Church's edict against intervening in the natural order: many years ago Chi used his skills to revive his son from the dead. That son, Lachlan Pas, is now a church leader tortured by the guilty knowledge of what his father had to do to return him to life. When he learns Chi is still alive, he orders his execution, determined that his secret should never be exposed.
Until now, Chi has been content to live in exile but now he knows that his son's insane and cruel rule must be stopped. Chi summons his half-siblings from throughout the inhabited lands of the Rift valley. The need for action is confirmed when one of them reveals that Lachlan and his mage, Oriole, are rebuilding the ancient city of Samhab - an act which will release the powers of the earth with unforeseeable consequences.
Welcome to the magical island city of Zigané, endlessly adrift in the southern lava sea; the searing soda plains home of the Morani warriors; the impenetrable Zochi jungle, full of illusion and hidden hazard; the charmed fortress-like City of the Divine Wall; and Samhab, the fantastic First City of the True, built at the geographical centre of the Rift, where the magical powers of the earth rise up to be set free by the earth-charmers and mages. The novel's cast of shape-changers, earth-charmers, healers and illusionists must battle to save civilization from the evil rule of Lachlan Pas and his followers.
For whoever controls the power of Samhab controls the future of the world.
"Keith Brooke's prose achieves a rare honesty and clarity, his characters always real people, his situations intriguing and often moving." World Fantasy Award-winner Jeff VanderMeer
"A progressive and skilful writer." Peter F Hamilton, author of the Night's Dawn trilogy
"In the recognized front ranks of SF writers." Locus