There will be spoilers!
If anything, I think on a sentence level, the writing in this book is even stronger than in the previous one, and a lot of the emotional through-lines are stronger. The characters are better-developed in their emotions and loyalties, and it's nice to see Jean and Locke's relationship complicated by internal pressures. It's also nice to see them rally one to the other when the going gets rough. They take care of each other when they're not capable of taking care of themselves. It still doesn't make them nice people--they're still guys who will torture on a whim--but they're men at this point with an emerging social conscience, which makes them fascinating as they move through their criminal world--and really begin to internalize some of the horrors suffered by the powerless in their feudal world.
So class issues come more and more to the fore, and Locke becomes more invested in his priesthood, and the guy who has the vision of the bright technological future is the villain of the piece, not because his vision is poisonous but because he will pile up the corpses of the innocent to get it--all the while ferociously defending his own people.
This book is not as wildly, inventively worldbuilt as Lies, due to the characters being stuck on boats a lot, but there is some very cool stuff nonetheless. And the night passage through the haunted channel amuses the hell out of me in part because based on various conversations, I am pretty sure the author has never read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
I have a deep and abiding love for a bunch of the characters here--Zamira, Ezri, and Jabril in particular. Ezri's engaging as all hell--a bossy, domineering lioness of a human being--and Zamira is wonderfully stately and vicious--and savagely funny. It would have been easy for her to come across as irritatingly portentous, but she manages to have dignity, viciousness, and a sense of humor all at once.
Nobody will ever say of Scott's work that things are too easy for his protagonists, and the Law Of Unintended Consequences is in full force here. This--the teetering of complication upon complication--actually produces the book's chief weakness, which is a series of setbacks and reversals that damage the pacing of the middle half of the book, rather than ratcheting up the tension. Our protagonists are out of control, being controlled from every side, and the nature of the trap they find themselves in pushes the narrative forward while doing very little to advance their own agendas.
It's a structure that works better in the first novel (three conflicting layers of conspiracy) because it's resolved faster: here it's allowed to stagnate, and there are long sections of travelogue that don't do enough to turn the screws--or allow our protagonists to take any positive action.
In some ways, it's the first-novel hiccup that the actual first novel avoids.
The wheels start turning again once Locke and Jean are once again in control of their own destinies... or at least free to manipulate the more powerful people around them again.
I rather like that the various betrayals come at the hands of more sympathetic characters, that we get to see a fairly major female character who's kind of a fuckup (it's nice to know that women can be both awesome and kind of whiny twits in this world), and --well, Ezri's eventual fate pushes all of my buttons. I am a huge sucker for brilliant self-sacrifice and death-or-glory stands, and the majesty with which she take fortune on the chin is a bit humbling. Selfless heroism gets me right up under the chest, and I love that it's not played for redemption. I may have sniffled.
All in all, four and a half Mickey Bricks out of five.