Very entertaining, and a step up in quality from the first volume in the trilogy. Primarily this gain is because of the focus--having taken over the seat of power the hero has now become the ruling institution, and must deal with all the political fragmentation, complications, betrayals and ambiguities of rule. It's a carrying of the victorious narrative further than a lot of science fiction normally goes, asking what happens next in the ambiguous situation, and bringing in a more nuanced understanding of societies and their transition than was given in the last edition. It's oddly stationary for a Jack Vance novel--the protagonist remains in the same basic position of power first to last for this novel, and the skills in improvisation and bluffing are involved in managing the existing fronts rather than climbing around the galaxy in pursuit of a specific quest. This element, along with the entertaining cast gathered to the end, makes for a quite interesting setup in Vance's complicated future. It’s carrying the necessity of consideration beyond what the ndividual agent can do, putting a more complicated responsability for herosim and political transformation than Vance usually delivers.
By the end this angle has shifted somewhat, a new underlying alien threat has been detected and some earlier political divisions prove to be attributed to this force. It's pretty well done as far as it goes, but feels a bit more conventional, as indeed do the main characters' roles in reshuffling society and instituting the titular Brave Free Men as a liberated force. It seems a little too facile a political resolution, like the trilogy is resolving its main potential too lightly. Still, overall it's a very effective piece, and I'm curious to see if the third volume gives a more conventional or ambitious structure in resolution.
Better than: The Anome by Jack Vance
Worse than: Inversions by Iain M. Banks