The review is going to be spoiler-free (or as spoiler-free as the back of a book blurb would be), but I'm going to lj-cut it to spare friends lists. It'll be a little rambly, though.
This was the most enjoyable Robin Hobb book for me style-wise, but I know some folks have found it a little less enjoyable than the Fitz books.
As background, 'Robin Hobb' is the pen name of author Megan Lindholm. She writes fantasy under both names, but they have very different styles. Her stuff as Megan Lindholm has always read to me more like a storyteller's stylized retellings of something, half-fable and half remembered events, perhaps even a touch of epic poem. Her Robin Hobb stuff is much more mainstream. I am a fan of both, for different reasons.
The prose in this is pure Robin Hobb, though as it's in first person it has more in common with the Fitz books in that regard than with the Liveship books. But Nevarre is not Fitz, and he has a voice all his own. Still, the spirituality and magic of these books felt a lot more like something out of Megan Lindholm's work, like the Ki and Vandien books or Wizard of the Pigeons.
This book takes place in the kingdom of Gernia. Gernia has a tradition -- really, more of a religious compulsion -- about inheritance. The first son takes up the father's vocation, the second son joins the military, the third the temple. Where it becomes interesting is in the nobility; only the heir inherits noble title. All other sons are of noble blood, but not noble. (Daughters are only noble if they marry an heir son.) Noble soldier sons go off to serve in the cavelle (cavalry), and when they retire they come home to be the caretaker on their elder brother's lands. This is simply how it has been.
But after the previous king nearly bankrupted Gernia to lose a war, and the coastal regions were lost entirely, his son took a different approach. He went to conquer the lands inland, trying to find new (and less well-fortified) territory. The war against the 'less-civilized' plainspeople and their magics went well, because iron disrupts magic. Hence why the iron-centric Gernian society no longer could use magic if they cared to. Their technology gives them an advantage, however, so they don't particularly care.
After this long and bloody conflict, the particularly noteworthy cavelle officers -- second sons of noble lines, all -- were ennobled by the king for their service. This created a class of 'new nobles,' or 'battle lords.' These neo-nobles are a source of political contention, as they are (obviously) directly loyal to the king, and thus break up the power-bloc that was growing the noble council (sort of like Parliament's House of Lords). Families schism over this, understandably.
This is how things stand when the continued inland expansion runs into another race of 'primitives,' the Specks. A dapple-skinned people who also have a magic of their own, the Specks prove annoyingly hard to remove from their forest territory.
Our book begins at this point and follows Nevarre, the soldier son of one of the 'battle lords.' Raised to focus only on the skills an officer will need, his education when it comes to politics is woefully poor. But in the cavelle academy, young Nevarre finds himself entangled in the politics between soldier sons of new noble and old noble families... and behind it all, a thread of Speck magic begins to be make itself known.