First, I should say that if you enjoy a fantasy story full of action, then, this may not be the story for you. There's more talk of battle and war than actual battle. This book relies more on political intrigue, dark family histories, and betrayals. And these are things I enjoyed about the story, especially toward the end of this book.
Something spoilerish this way comes.
I think I appreciated the characters before I really started getting into the story itself. I didn't think story was bad, but it seemed to move along slowly at first. I blame those feelings on my recent GRRM bender where there is something always happening page after page. You can’t start his books without someone dying or someone planning to kill someone. However, I really loved the characters Bujold gave us in this story. Many of them captured my attention the moment they were introduced.
From the beginning, Cazaril proved his strength was in his wits, even before he became somewhat physically frail (in some ways) due to his time in captivity. He has many physical ailments from his abuse, such as his crooked hands, but his true strength had sharpened to be a fine edged sword. Even though we do get to see Caz fight a few times, he’d rather mince words, and he’s very good at it. He doesn’t see any cowardice in using words to start and end a battle. He can formulate plans on the spot and passes on valuable advice to others, often questioning their thought process so they could back up the claims they made.
Iselle and Beatriz, I loved those two separately, together, and as a cunning trio with Caz. Iselle is young, but shrewd. Same goes for her friend and lady, Beatriz. Though, Betriz is a little bit older than Iselle. Both flourish under Caz’s tutelage who manages to help them temper their rashness and learn to observe a situation, to see the small nuances that hide under “courtly behavior, ” and to use these things to their advantage. There was a bit of romance in the story, but it wasn’t a big theme of the story. It was simple, understated, and very sweet in my opinion. I was glad that Iselle wasn’t the object of Caz’s quiet affection, but Beatriz--an affection that she obviously was returning, but he was oblivious, thinking himself too old, too poor, too broken, for someone like her. I thought the simplicity in that was very well done.
I cared about some of the characters who weren't main characters, but provide something to the story that makes it rich. Ista (Iselle and Teidez's mother) is the first one. We're given a brief history of her and of things that happened in her life before the story. Caz remembers her from a time when he served as a page for her father and mother and recalls her being beautiful and taken with the romanticisms of the court. So, he's a bit surprised to see what she's become. Crazy is what they call her, and Caz is willing to believe that until he talks to her and realizes that she is very, very sane. And then her story at the end... I already wanted to know more about her and what happened. I think one of these books is about her, if I’m not mistaken, and I’m dying to know more about her.
Royesse (or am I supposed to call her Royina) Sara was another that piqued my interest. You know something is wrong there with her, and she seems frail, disconnected, broken. She doesn't show much interest in anything, but does betray some fondness for music and is said to employ the best musicians. After Dondo's death when Iselle confides in Caz that Dondo mentioned that he and his brother did horrible things with the royina with Orico's permission (telling her this in an attempt to scare Iselle into not protesting their impending marriage), Sara dresses dazzlingly in quiet defiance of mourning the man she hated with the rest of the kingdom. And she even finds her courage to tell Iselle of the family curse, which Caz had been avoiding.
Umegat was another. I don’t know think he’s as secondary as Sara or Ista since he plays a much bigger part in the story, but I liked that he was from a land that often warred with the people of Chalion, a land who worshipped the gods “strangely.” For some reason, his people made me think of the dothraki because they were described as fierce warriors. Caz had been enslaved by Umegat’s people, and while he has a healthy level of distrust for them, Umegat became one of Caz’s trusted confidants and sounding board. And Umegat was a victim of how fickle the gods could be, or was he? I felt what happened to him a bit unfair when he’d been nothing but faithful. However, maybe I’ll see him again in later books and the opinion will change if there's some lesson to be taken from this.
I thought the dy Jironal brothers were fitting antagonists, but I felt the pretense of how they betrayed Cazaril prior to the events in this book a little shallow. I appreciate and understand that even the slightest thing would set off an ambitious person like Dondo, but it never really scratched below the surface for me. I didn't encounter Dondo enough to truly loathe him as I should. Most of his misdeeds with the exception of his failed attempt at bribing Cazaril and his thwarted rape attempt (of Betriz) and public shaming stemming from that incident were all secondhand or hinted at through murderous stares. I thought Dondo was a disgusting man, but Dondo more than his brother felt like plot fodder just to keep the story going. There was no real depth of character there for me other than the fact they were not good people and someone had to take the villain’s fall.
The story started getting really interested to me once Caz left Valenda for Chalion. Outside the safety of Valenda, that’s where the real intrigue began. Bujold crafted a very engaging tale that wasn’t heavy handed on the fantasy, which is something I prefer in fantasy books I read. I really love how she explored “sainthood” in this story, making it both an honor and a curse, which is often what it seemed like for people who claimed to hear the gods/God in history. The saints truly are the vessels of the gods, and while their strength of character certainly make them good candidates, it's their willingness to submit in total supplication to the gods' wills, even at the risk of their own livelihood, that cause them to be god-touched. They will allow the gods to work through them in whatever ways the gods deemed worthy. It was like a little exploration of what a life like that might be like.
Also, I did feel that parts of the story, important parts of the story in my opinion, were glossed over or important events were tied up too neatly and without much fuss or consequence. I have nothing against Danni, the young boy that Cazaril helped during his captivity, being the Ibran heir that Iselle so desperately needs to help her thwart dy Jironal’s plans for her, but it was just so obviously convenient rather than subtly convenient. Even if Iselle hadn't hit it off with the royse, how likely was it that the boy who Caz had helped in captivity, a boy he protected from being raped, a boy who (he later found out) he died for and was granted mercy by the goddess who restored his life for that act, would deny Caz? Even if he hadn't accepted the marriage, he would've pledged his support since it would've been to his advantage.
And there were many instances like that in the story. But at the same time, it did cause me to ask myself how much of this course was laid out for Cazaril and the Chalion family by the gods and how much was happenstance. That was actually a question that asked in the story as well since free will is supposed to play a large part in things. Umegat made the best case for that when he surmised that maybe many men are set loosely on the same path, but their choices and circumstances ultimately led them away from their destination, that maybe Caz (and himself) were the only ones who made the right set of choices to fulfill the god's will for their particular goals. Umegat seemed to believe that if they failed at the tasks the gods gave them, there would be others the gods would employ to see it through.
Despite the little things, I enjoyed this story more I thought I would when I first started reading it. I was so happy to see a male protagonist who wasn't brandishing his sword everywhere and bedding all the women. I'd definitely recommend this for people who want more intrigue than outright violence in their fantasy story.