This was the book that introduced me to Lois McMaster Bujold–and I stumbled across it entirely by chance, because one of the other books in the series (conveniently shelved nearby) indicated that this one had been nominated for a Hugo award. Of course I had to investigate further, since that award has generally pointed me in the direction of authors I’ve enjoyed.
The back cover called to me, then:
A man broken in body and spirit, Cazaril has returned to the noble household he once served as page, and is named, to his great surprise, secretary-tutor to the beautiful, strong-willed sister of the impetuous boy who is next in line to rule. It is as assignment Cazaril dreads, for it must ultimately lead him to the place he most fears: the royal court of Cardegoss, where the powerful enemies who once placed him in chains now occupy lofty positions. but it is more than the traitorous intrigues of villains that threaten Cazaril and the Royesse Iselle here, for a sinister curse hangs like a sword over the entire blighted House of Chalion and all who stand in their circle. And only by employing the darkest, most forbidden of magics can Cazaril hope to protect his royal charge — an act that will mark the loyal, damaged servant as a tool of the miraculous … and trap him, flesh and soul, in a maze of demonic paradox, damnation, and death.
The book quickly sucks the reader in with an atmospheric, moody introduction to a main character as beaten down by life as he possibly can be, dragging his feet toward an unknown destination:
He polished the mud off the coin–little enough even if gold–and pulled out his own purse. Now there was an empty bladder. He dropped the thin disk of metal into the leather mouth and stared down at its lonely glint. He sighed and tucked the pouch away. Now he had a hope for bandits to steal again. Now he had a reason to fear. He reflected on his new burden, so great for its weight, as he stumped up the road in the wake of the soldier-brothers. Almost not worth it. Almost. Gold. Temptation to the weak, weariness to the wise…what was it to a dull-eyed bull of a soldier, embarrassed by his accidental largesse?
Cazaril was my first introduction to McMaster Bujold’s sympathetic treatment of older, somewhat worn-out, somewhat down-on-their-luck male protagonists, and he hit all my happy buttons too. Layer that with rich language and a setting vaguely reminiscent of some romanticized version of old Spain and I was deeply engrossed in the tale right off the bat–especially with its unique treatment of religion and spirituality (I loved what she did with the conflict between those who believed in the “Four” versus those who believed in the “Five” for its overtones of the inquisition) and the mystery that built into the story within the first 20 pages of the book.
Even better, the progression of how an individual learns to hold hope again when he had thought he had lost everything and how he rebuilds his inner world and finds a way forward in that context made for a compelling character study, and therefore a book that drives the reader to continue turning the pages through to the end. The secondary characters were as finely drawn as Cazaril himself, as he finds himself folded back into court intrigue as the Royesse Iselle’s tutor, and strangely drawn to her companion Lady Betriz.
The best part of the book, though, is its examination of what it means to allow the Gods access to your life as an expression of faith and the gift a willing human vessel imparts to the world in its surrender to those Higher Powers. The examination of the very human corruption that can taint a purely spiritual message should ring true to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with history and give some corollary insights into how quickly expedience can lead to damnation.
I can happily recommend this book to anyone interested in a well-drawn fantasy world that nonetheless helps focus the lens on issues we face even in our current reality. This is definitely a thinking person’s book, so while the prose may beguile at the beginning, the message is what sticks with you at the end.