I read this novel for the Alphabet Challenge over at calico_reaction. Like the other challenges I've participated in this month, this is a title that I don't think I would've picked up on my own. I have a friend who is absolutely in love with Bujold, but she likes her sci-fi stuff more, so I've actually never even heard of this one. Overall, I would say my first experience with Bujold has been a positive one.
In his novel, Bujold presents the readers with the very broken character that is Cazaril. This guy isn't a knight in shining armor: he's been through hell and back. He has his weaknesses (physical and mental) and I appreciated him all the more for that. It made him a little three-dimensional for me, and he broke the mold of typical fantasy heroes that I've encountered in the past, which is the young lad who goes off on an adventure and is destined for greater things. Caz IS destined for greater things, but it's to support other people who need to fulfill their destiny. He's there to help them out, and he does so with a sincerity that was absolutely heartwarming.
Which brings me to the secondary characters: for the most part, I loved them. I thought Iselle was a great mix of being lady-like, but still feisty at the same time. Her best friend Betriz was a cute romantic interest for Caz. I like how, when he first started expressing interest in her, he realized it was a little more on the lustful side. They get to know each other for the better part of a year though, which I think is plenty of time for characters to fall in love. :) It wasn't the focus of the story, but it was a nice aside. Also, despite the age difference between the two, and despite him not being the best looking guy, he's so sweet and nice! I think I would fall for him too. Anyway, all this to say, I thought their romance was sweet, and I think Bujold put in just a right amount.
What really made this novel for me was how I ended up caring for the main cast. I mean, I was *upset* when Caz decided to sacrifice himself to black magic to save Iselle from a horrible wedding arrangement. While I was touched that he was so determined to keep Iselle from such a horrible fate, I was still think "NONONO what are you doing!?!" That wedding arrangement Iselle was almost forced into broke my heart as well. The villains were a little two-dimensional, but that is explained away with the curse on the family ruling Chalion. It's implied that they didn't start out being such horrible people, but the curse has tainted their soul and made them as such. I'm still undecided if this was a lazy method to explain away how flat they were, or if it was legit. Either way, it didn't bother me enough for it to impede my enjoyment of the novel.
The plot itself is very slow-moving. I can see this being a fault for many people, but I didn't mind. This fantasy is a lot more of a political-intrigue and no, a lot doesn't happen, but I found Bujold's prose carried the story along well, and there's usually something important that happens in each chapter so that things clip along, even if it isn't the fastest pace.
The religious aspect of the novel is also probably one of the only blatant fantastical elements of the story. There's references made to the gods from the beginning of the story, but they don't really come to light until further in the novel after Caz attempts to use black magic to save Iselle. Until this point, I didn't realize just how literal the gods were and how REAL they were. I thought they were just deities made up by the people for them to worship, but they're actual... I don't want to say "beings" because they're corporeal at any point, but let's just say that they're very present within the story. This was a neat and different approach to gods and I don't know if it's been done before. I also appreciated that Caz wasn't a religious person at the beginning of the novel, but his experiences and very close encounters with the gods obviously change his mind.
Final Verdict: This is a much slower-paced fantasy that relies more on political intrigue and the characters to carry it through. If you want adventure and travel a la Lord of the Rings, you're not going to find it here. I think Bujold's characters are greatly realized though, even if the villains fell a little flat (this is explained away with a plot point though.) Overall, I really enjoyed it. Caz and "his ladies" (as he likes to call them) completely won me over, and I found myself invested in what happened to them and felt an emotional reaction to their actions. This book has a sequel, Paladin of Soul, but it focuses more on a minor character who didn't really do anything for me, so I don't think I'll be checking out. Bujold is an author I want to read more of though, and I'll be doing for the Women of Science Fiction book club! :)