Those who have become addicted to the antics and wry humor of Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series will be somewhat surprised by this book, but not disappointed. As her second entry into the world of fantasy, she shows in this book the same talent, dedication to detail, and adherence to the strictures of good writing applicable to the chosen genre as she does in her science fiction works.
Typical of many fantasy works, the imagined world is one of a feudal society, with technology appropriate to the Middle Ages, and deals almost entirely with the trials and tribulations of its aristocracy. But odd sidelights are shown on the working class folks, as we learn the details Lupe dy Cazaril experiences. A minor lord who was betrayed into slavery, we open the book with Caz, now a physically broken man, penniless, walks back to the only place he can think of that might offer him at least some sort of job, the castle at Valenda. Fate here is a little kinder, as he is given the job of tutor to royesse Iselle, sister to the heir of Chalion, and her lady in waiting Betriz, a job well suited to his current physical condition, requiring only quick wits and getting his charges to respect him. But this post leads Caz into the deep waters of court intrigue when the two girls and the fourteen-year old heir are called to the royal court of Cardegoss.
For the first 150 pages, there is very little magic, nothing to separate this world from the mundane, except one instance of 'death magic', an item that is attempted only rarely, as, when successful, it invariably kills the practitioner as well as the desired target. But when Iselle is promised to Dondo, brother of the Lord Chancellor, whom she decidedly despises, Caz attempts this magic himself, as the only way he sees to protect her. The fallout from this forms the main basis of the plot, complete with mystery, action, and an unraveling of a curse that exposes the much nearer relationship of the gods of this world to its inhabitants than is seen in our world. The invented religion shown here is one of the main points of departure from our own, and is inventive, believable, and inextricably tied to the plot action.
Caz is a true man of honor, as we are shown in incident after incident. This is one of the appeals of most fantasy works, as heroes are common coin, not relegated to the trashbin of other literary forms, and makes for interesting, uplifting reading. Iselle and Betriz are originally shown as typical teenage girls, flighty and irresponsible, but they show a sudden change to much more mature individuals after Iselle's bethrothal, a change I found a little difficult to believe due to its rapidity. But as adult characters they show steel, inventiveness, recognition of those true to them, characteristics of proper heroines. The minor characters are interesting and in many cases given a fair amount of development, leading to a very satisfactory intertwining of motivations, treachery, and incident. The romance that develops between Caz and Betritz is predictable, but well handled.
Most of the humor that suffuses her Miles books is missing here, and perhaps this book would have been a little better if more of it had been present. But as it is this is a satisfying read, with characters you can empathize with, and just enough touch of different, of things not as they are in our world, to whet your appetite for more words about this world.
Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)