He made his voice stern, for emphasis. “Dondo dy Jironal is a power you dare not treat with anything but strictest courtesy.”
Iselle swirled round, and stared intently at him. “No matter how corrupt that power is?”
“The more corrupt, the less safe.”
Iselle raised her chin. “So, Castillar, tell me—how safe, in your judgment, is Dondo dy Jironal?”
He was caught out, his mouth at half-cock. So say it—Dondo dy Jironal is the second-most-dangerous man in Chalion, after his brother. Instead, he picked up a new quill from the clay jar and began shaping its tip with the penknife. After a moment or two he got out, “I do not like his sweaty hands either.”
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Synopsis: After a stint of slavery and torture in enemy galleys, Castillar dy Cazaril returns to Chalion and seeks work in a ruling household he once served. Remembered by the family, Cazaril becomes secretary-tutor to young Royesse Iselle and her companion Lady Betriz—only to be sent with them to Chalion’s high court, where his own worst enemies hold a great deal of power and put all three of them in danger.
When those enemies move against the royesse, Cazaril must risk both body and soul to protect his charges and the whole generous but cursed royal family.
Notes: In modern fantasy, the common trope is to put an inexperienced young character into the cycle of hero’s journey, at some point giving him or her an archetypal Wise Old Mentor for instruction and aid. This book, however, gives its protagonist both age—thirty-five, with some gray hairs—and the wisdom of immense experience, as well as a mentor role. And throws him into the monomyth nonetheless.
I liked this. Cazaril proved both interesting and sympathetic, a good man who becomes a great one not so much by growing from naivete to wisdom (though there is some of that, particularly as regards his relationship to the gods) as by continual willingness to obey the demands of rightness despite his feelings. Though his ideas and decisions fit with his setting and culture and not always with twenty-first century Western sensibilities, he remains likable.
The setting, culture and gods are quite well-developed, especially the first and the last. I appreciate a good setting with lots of visuals, and apparently, so does McMaster Bujold. The culture had strong hints of old Spain, which helped unify the images; of course, it also made me want to read the names in a mostly Castilian way, which turned out to be mostly wrong. The world and worldbuilding felt real, though, believable, and no part of it was more interesting than the gods.
I happen to very much like a good portrayal of religion in fiction, and a richly-imagined fantasy faith can be especially enjoyable. What McMaster Bujold actually believes, and where she drew her ideas from, I could not entirely discern. But the fivefold family of gods—Father, Mother, Son, Daughter (all corresponding to the seasons), and Bastard (the god of odds and ends)—was fascinating to no end. Problematic morally at times, from a variety of different angles, but intriguing nonetheless. It was portrayed with common miracles and therefore a general certainty, but never failed to be comprehensible within its world.
It is in the area of faith that Cazaril most lacks understanding, and his character growth is largely spiritual. That trajectory thoughtfully develops the concept of a single human becoming a conduit for the gods’ work, within, of course, the context of Chalion’s religion.
Cazaril’s task forces him to choose between serious moral transgression and allowing the royesse, who is entirely under his care, to be seriously transgressed upon. It also involves him in a great deal of the grotesque—and on that note, I should add that this is an adult book. Blessedly free from the curse of the gratuitous sex scene, but straightforward in depiction of the story’s lecherous villain and other vulgarities. There’s also some violence, both magical and ordinary; for high fantasy, however, the tale is relatively short on gore.
Despite the presence of real tragedy, the book works toward joy and healing. It does so beautifully. If anything, it resolves a little too neatly, but you’ll not hear this reviewer complaining about that.
Recommendation: Read for its intelligent hero and his intriguing, beautifully-developed fantasy world.