Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 1/9/2014, Reviewed 1/11/2014
Ista is the dowager queen of Chalion. She has lived a cursed life full of heartbreak and despair, and she may just be a little nuts. She is constantly surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting and guards to keep her safe, presumably from herself. Tired of this subtle imprisonment, she sets out on a journey under the guise of a pilgrimage, just to get away from her memories, and out from under the thumb of her overprotective staff. On the way, she has confrontations with enemy soldiers, sorcerers, gods, and demons that give her a chance come to terms with the powers bestowed on her and embrace her destiny.
Ista is a great character. Like Cordelia in Barrayar, she is smart, headstrong, and has a wicked sense of humor. But she is also flawed with self-doubt and resentment of her past. One of the things I like most about her is that she is older than your typical heroine. She’s forty years old and a widow. Her daughter is the ruling queen, so she struggles with her lack of role in her society. So she just decides to take a vacation, as much as you can call leaving a castle in a middle-ages fantasy kingdom a vacation. Then things turn bad. There seems to be an epidemic of demons, her band is attacked by enemy troops, and she’s saved by a lord of a castle where bad magic seems to be afoot. And Ista appears to be the one person who can clean this whole mess up.
This book has some elements a romance novel. While I am not a big fan of romance novels, I did like the fact that Ista’s sexuality is a part of who she is. It’s not blatant, it’s just matter of fact, like a real person. Ista is a celebration of being a person of a certain age. Being one myself, I think I just enjoy older fictional characters who are strong, funny, and sexual. There is one sexual scene in the book which was a little freaky-scary-magicky, but it actually adds to the strange, bad magic happenings around the castle.
The world created by Bujold has a fully developed mythology with a pantheon of five gods: the Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter, and the Bastard. I thought this was great. It’s an awesome extension of the Christian concept of the Trinity, with a twist. The Bastard is a god, but is also a trickster, and the keeper of demons. Because of the heartbreak she suffered in the previous book, which I haven’t read, “Curse of Chalion”, Ista is angry with the gods and resents how they invade her dreams with visions and prophesy. Some of the gods actually appear to Ista, but religion itself is really the character that Ista has conflict with. Her conflict is fully realized as she comes into contact with the lord and lady of the castle, more demons, and that marauding enemy from the north.
The supporting characters are also well developed. There’s the ruggedly handsome lord and his equally handsome brother, the nearly-mad lady, a bumbling monk, and a strong-willed courier-turned-lady-in-waiting. All the characters are wonderfully drawn and add a lot of warmth and depth to the story.
The fault I had with the book was that the writing style was boring to me. The book seemed to have all the elements that make a great fantasy novel, but it just left me flat. There were a lot of exposition scenes which took away from the movement of the story. I can recall three really major exposition scenes which just seemed like cop-outs.
I really wanted to like this book, but the great parts didn’t add up to a great whole. I give this book three stars. Despite the rating, I want to read “Curse of Chalion”, the first book in the series, and “The Hallowed Hunt”, the third, because I really liked the mythology Bujold created.