Three loosely linked novels by Lois McMaster Bujold set in a reasonably historically accurate counterpart to medieval Europe, with a pantheon of five gods (the Father, Mother, Daughter, Son and Bastard) — fairly activist gods, but ones who are incapable of acting directly on the physical world, requiring them to work through willing humans. In publication order:
The Curse of Chalion (the Daughter's book)
Paladin of Souls (the Bastard's book)
The Hallowed Hunt (the Son's book)
This series contains examples of:
Adipose Rex: Roya Orico is both obese and sickly, frequently with food stains on his clothing. In fact he is diabetic and the disease is only held off by the menagerie. He is a peripheral force for good at best and his moral weakness puts major characters in peril.
All Are Equal in Death: Every soul is picked up by one of the gods at their death, regardless of status or faith, and which god is shown in a miracle at their funeral. Then explored in the third book, where certain souls are shown to be impossible for the gods to pick up, and the trouble is about how to make them pickable again.
And Then What?: Ijada's extremely practical response when Ingrey offers to let her escape. Ingrey thinks she can escape into the woods and to her kin; Ijada thinks it likely she'll just end up eaten by a bear.
Another Man's Terror: In Curse of Chalion, Cazaril prays for a death magic miracle. If it succeeds, it will kill both himself and his target. After he completes the ritual, he hallucinates that he is his victim, who chokes to death on his own tongue.
Attempted Rape: Boleso tries it on Ijada just before the beginning of the novel, which not-coincidentally opens with Ingrey going to collect Boleso's body.
Badass Bookworm: Technically Cazaril is Royesse Iselle's tutor and he is very erudite. He's also a dirty fighter and will stop at nothing to help "his ladies", supernatural curses, supernatural tumors and evil chancellors be damned.
Barred from the Afterlife: Sometimes someone who doesn't get the proper funeral rite and died a traumatic death can't be taken up by the gods and ends up a lost soul, although they can be redeemed by a living saint. Shamans attach an animal spirit to their soul and need another shaman to separate the two when they die. This damnation (becoming a ghost) also occurs to those for whom the afterlife would not be welcome — they choose forgetfulness and decay instead of an eternity of perfect memory.
In The Curse of Chalion, the sick Roya Orico becomes much sicker when his pet bear is killed along with the rest of his menagerie, which was a gift from the Temple that magically kept him alive. But the leopard was the scary and dangerous animal.
In Paladin of Souls, a bear shows up, Foix dy Gura kills it, and the demon that was possessing the bear jumps into Foix.
In The Hallowed Hunt, Fafa the ice bear isn't killed, but:
Ijada: I was imagining the most bizarre things befalling you. Ingrey: Did they include a six-hundred-pound ice bear and a pirate poet? Ijada: No... Ingrey: Then they weren't the most bizarre after all.
Body Horror: A demon can manifest in you as a magical tumor... which eventually grows teeth and claws and tears its way out of you. Was terrifying for Cazaril until it turned out he had a +5 Holy Tumor Of Evil Chancellor Slaying.
The really bad part was that Cazaril was less disturbed by the demon than by the soul of Dondo dy Jironal, said Evil Chancellor's rather more evil kid brother, who is stuck in the same tumor, happens to be vocally upset over the whole matter, and may be "leaking".
The revealed form of Horseriver, which is only humanlike in outline, has the marks of every death he has died, and the screaming faces of all the imprisoned spirits cycling around his skull.
The Book Cipher: Used in The Curse of Chalion when Cazaril and Iselle need to communicate privately over long distances.
Bury Your Gays: In The Curse of Chalion, Ias and dy Lutez both died in the backstory, as (possibly) did Umegat's partner.
Cassandra Truth: Ista was labeled insane for years — turns out she was just truthfully recounting the visions the gods were sending to her.
A Child Shall Lead Them: 16 year old Iselle's bid to establish effective power gains extra traction from to her youth, her beauty, the timely commencement of Spring, and the fact that all three are the domain of the Daughter. Many of her subjects took it as a sign of divine favor from the Lady; incidentally, they were correct.
Chekhov's Gift: Dondo probably did not intend to save the life of Iselle's betrothed when he gave her an extravagant strand of pearls.
Cazaril carries both Chekhov's Tumor and Chekhov's Scars.
Chekhov's Army: The Order of the Daughter. Who knew a bunch of hardened soldiers sworn to the service of the Goddess of Virginity could help the maiden princess defend herself from unwanted suitors?
Chekhov's Skill: Iselle and Bertiz are scolded by their guardians for their unladylike habit of riding horses like they're on fire; but when everyone believes them irretrievably besieged by Martou dy Jironal's forces, they just tear off into the night with one escort, into friendly hands and a perfect strategic stronghold before anyone even realizes they're gone.
Compelling Voice: This is one benefit of harboring a spirit animal, as Ingrey discovers when he stops a raging ice bear with nothing but a firm verbal command. Horseriver—being a bit more powerful and a lot more experienced—can employ even more complicated tricks, overlapping with Jedi Mind Tricks and Mind Control.
Corrupt Church: averted due to having rather active gods. Very few "divines" are actively corrupt, and they are generally weeded out promptly.
Cryptic Conversation: Between Cazaril and Ista. They understand each other perfectly well. It's Ista's ladies in waiting who think they're babbling nonsense.
In general, between any two people touched by the gods. Cazaril remarks on this a few times: that the only person who can really understand a living saint "talking shop" is another such.
Crystal Dragon Jesus: The Quintarian faith, while its theology is different and well-developed, fills the cultural role of the medieval Catholic Church. The Quadrene religion is closely related to Quintarianism but disagrees on a few very significant points, making it somewhat parallel the relationship between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. (Politically, it specifically parallels the medieval conflicts between Christianity and Islam in Spain.)
Curse: Obviously a central theme in the first two books. Also important in the third, but there it is generally referred to as a "geas," and is another way a saying "magically compelled."
Technically, it's only attempted death magic which is forbidden. If you succeed, it's a literal miracle of justice. But you're still dead. (And your corpse still needs to be burnt before sunset)
Sorcery is dangerous mostly due to the very thin line between possessing a demon and demonic possession.
Possessing a spirit-animal gives on great physical strength and speed. Unfortunately, it may also drive the bearer mad, and it will leave them sundered from the gods at their death, unless another shaman is available to exorcize their soul.
Dark Is Not Evil/Light Is Not Good: Played with. The Bastard's associated color is white... and he's the lord of demons and god of disasters, who people tend to try to appease rather than worship. Except... his role is to rein in and control demons so they don't hurt humans, and he's also the god of unexpected blessings. Further, most of his "disasters" are either plans to eventually better humanity's lot, or desperate measures to control the damage caused by the other gods' meddling.
Paladin of Souls suggests that the Bastard maintains the balance between order and chaos, keeping the world between frozen stasis and destruction.
Likewise, the Father's colors are black and grey, but he's the god of fatherhood, leadership, and justice.
Cazaril is host to two miracles. The Bastard granted his prayer for a Death Miracle, and the Lady of Spring restrained the demon which should have flown away with his soul and Dondo's.
Subverted at the end of The Curse of Chalion. Witnesses were left thinking that The Lady of Spring struck dy Jironal with a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky, for the crime of offering violence on Her day, when what they were really witnessing was the undoing of her earlier miracle.
Arhys' sundered soul is saved when The Father of Winter makes Ista his living door into heaven.
A subtle one, but technically the Son of Autumn saved Ijada from Boleso's assault.
Did Do The Research: Horses get tired and riders get muddy. You can't swim in plate armor. Sheltered maidens can't wield cavalry weapons (without help). Bujold cuts no corners on historical accuracy, and rather uses it to add tension and drama.
Evil Chancellor: Martou dy Jironal, as a result of the curse. Roya Orico, knowing he was cursed to be a terrible ruler, handed the reins over to dy Jironal in hopes of circumventing his fate ... but the curse is smarter than that, and perverted dy Jironal's ambition into corruption, making Orico's decision a case of terrible misrule in itself.
Fantasy Counterpart Culture: To the Iberian peninsula in the late Reconquista, with the map flipped around so that the Moors (that is, the Roknari) are in the north rather than the south. The Weald is German/Germanic central Europe.
First Guy Wins/Last Guy Wins: Zigzagged in Paladin of Souls. Bujold implies that Ista is too old and heartbroken for romance. Then sets up several potential love interests and whips the reader back and forth between them like a terrier with a rat. Then after getting the reader's hopes up she implies that Ista was deluding herself all along. Then she subverts that, too.
Flip Personality: Demons in Paladin of Souls. Those with second sight can see who is in control of a body.
The Four Gods: Not specifically the Chinese ones—they are a Father, Mother, Son, and Daughter—but similar in some respects, for instance in ruling the four seasons. Quintarians also believe in a fifth god, the Bastard, for "all things out of season."
For Want of a Nail: In the original poem's sense. After Cazaril realizes the extent of the gods' manipulations, he wonders how many men they sent on the road to help Teidez as he was sent to help Iselle, and who never made it.
A prayer to the Bastard calls this trope explicitly, with indication that it's divinely inspired at the time:
"And the Bastard grant us...in our direst need, the smallest gifts: the nail of the horseshoe, the pin of the axle, the feather at the pivot point, the pebble at the mountain's peak, the kiss in despair, the one right word."
Gargle Blaster: (The Hallowed Hunt) Jokol's men serve Ingrey a drink that is drunk in one gulp from a tiny glass and tastes like "pine needles."
Give Me a Sign: One of them generally will, though you may regret asking.
God's Hands Are Tied: The reason why Deus ex Machina aren't flying around everywhere. Explained in-story that a person who manages to open themselves to the Five Gods is an empty vessel, having surrendered their will completely. Harder than it seems, and not nearly a comfortable thing — see the notes for Blessed with Suck above.
Grande Dame: The Dowager Provincara dy Baocia is a Meddling Matriarch—her son moved his capitol and court from Valenda to Taryoon to get away from her, and much of her daughter Ista's flight at the beginning of Paladin of Souls is getting away from her even after she's died. Less than a month after her death, the following exchange occurs:
"My lord dy Baocia — as the head of the family now, it's your place to insist she be more sensible!"
"Actually," Ista noted, "He's been head of the family for a decade and a half."
Dy Baocia snorted, and muttered under his breath, "Aye — anyplace in Baocia but Valenda..."
Grand Theft Me: There has been only one Earl Horseriver, and his house's descent from the old Hallow Kings is not a coincidence.
A Hell of a Time: It's implied that if you're claimed by the Bastard for a lifetime of service to his church, you get this. If you're, say, a gluttonous, cowardly, would-be rapist on the other hand...
Heroic BSOD: Caz breaks down sobbing after spending almost two years as a galley slave, walking for a month across the mountains as an impoverished beggar then being welcomed into the Provincara's household and given a nightshirt, tooth brush and a soft, warm bed to sleep in.
And that's after spending months recovering from what sounds a lot like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (which was caused by spending 19 months in slavery rowing on a galley).
In the backstory, Cazaril went through this toward the end of the long, desperate siege of Gotorget.
... That night on the tower, tears of fatigue and despair — and yes, rage — running down his face, he'd torn [his Brother's medal] off and flung it over the battlement, denying the god who'd denied him. The spinning slip of gold had disappeared into the darkness without a sound. And he'd flung himself prone on the stones, ... and sworn that any other god could pick him up who willed, or none, so long as the men who had trusted him were let out of this trap. As for himself, he was done. Done. Nothing, of course, happened.
Insistent Terminology: As the Bastard's dedicats will tell you, it's a Death Miracle, not magic. The misnomer persists, however.
Inspired By: Word of God says that Chalion was inspired by the history of Spain during the Reconquista period, specifically Isabella of Castile (Iselle dy Chalion) and Ferdinand of Aragon (Bergon dy Ibra).
Irony: Dondo dy Jironal—a man who promised rape and humiliation to his unwilling betrothed, Iselle—is placed in charge of the Daughter's order, who's patron goddess is the divine incarnation of virgin women.
I See Dead People: When they die, most people are taken up by one of the gods, but some hang around for one reason or another, gradually fading away. One of the side effects of sainthood is the ability to see them.
King Incognito: Ista's vaca-*ahem* pilgrimage in Paladin of Souls was taken under the alias of a minor noblewoman to avoid the entourage deemed fitting for a dowager royina, and the sister of a ruling provincar.
Cazaril intends to use what time he has left to secure the safety of "his ladies" and the political stability of the kingdom.
Arhys waltzes into the enemy camp—well outnumbered and expecting to die—gambling that his temporary immunity to injury will break their ranks and allow him to kill the enemy sorcerers.
Last Name Basis: Many characters in Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls are referred to by last name; some go by nicknames based on them (Caz from dy Cazaril, Palli from dy Palliar).
The Last Thing You Ever See: Very much averted, as Caz informs someone stupid enough to threaten him that if he wanted them dead, they'd never see it coming.
Luke Nounverber: Jokol Skullsplitter. Weald clan names are generally of the form Animallandscape; examples include Wolfcliff, Horseriver, Badgerbank, and Lynxlake.
Made a Slave: Cazaril comes home fresh from the galley rowbanks at the beginning of The Curse of Chalion. And it had been so bad that after being freed, at first he starts weeping at the slightest cause. Yet his protecting of a fellow rower plays an important part in ending the curse.
Male Gaze: Used in The Hallowed Hunt when Ingrey starts falling for Ijada. For the female readers, it doubles as an excuse to describe her pretty medieval dresses.
Mistaken for Gay: Apparently a minor hazard of becoming a priest of the Bastard.
Mistaken for Pedophile: Cazaril's whip scars from his time as a galley slave cause this to happen to him, as whipping is the standard punishment for pedophiles in Chalion.
Mr. Fanservice: Bujold refrains from any enthusiastic descriptions of her heroes, but:
Wherever they go, men sworn to the Daughter's Order are generally looked well upon (and giggled over a lot), what with being gallant defenders of womankind, among other things.
In The Curse of Chalion, after the Ibran contingent's heroic cross-country ride to bring the groom to Iselle, "they were collecting Chalionese ladies rather as spilled honey collected ants..."
Arhys is able to make a world-weary middle-aged woman in the middle of traumatic circumstances suddenly rediscover her sexuality through his mere proximity.
A stunning first impression was not the same as love at first sight, but it was certainly an invitation to consider the matter.
Multiple Choice Past: There's a few different versions of the Bastard's origin floating around, it's not clear whether the Mother had sex with a demon or if he is more of a magical construct they created together.
My God, What Have I Done?: Cazaril, after his plan to get Iselle to marry out of the Curse results in Bergon marrying into it.
Never Mess with Granny: Joen of Jokona who has a powerful demon under her thumb. And Dowager Royina Ista who eats that demon, sending it back to the Bastard's Hell.
Off on a Technicality: Cazaril isn't arrested for death magic because it turns out only unsuccessful attempts are illegal.note The whole part about successful and genuine attempts leaving the perp alive is not something the temple has ever dealt with. Plus the law is mainly there to curb people trying to fake it with poisons and other mundane methods.
Oh, Crap: Cazaril's initial reaction to the job offer of Secretary-Tutor to Royesse Iselle.
"Couldn't you give me a fortress under siege instead?"
The Provincara's response to that is to dryly note that a fortress under siege is almost exactly what her granddaughter is going to be.
Cazaril has this response, to greater or lesser degrees, to a lot of requests that are laid on him; Ista remarks that his admitted fear of them makes him wiser than those who either aren't smart enough to know just how far out of their depth they are, or are too proud to admit it.
Our Demons Are Different: Demons answer to the Bastard, who is like the House of Hufflepuff when it comes to taking up souls. He takes anyone not covered by the other four gods and is the patron of homosexuals, bastards, and all things out of season. In Chalion, it is acknowledged that demons are Always Chaotic Evil, but this mostly means that possession of (or by) a demon puts you under the temple's purview. The Roknari, one the other hand, consider the Bastard to be the the equivalent of Satan, and the Quintarian religion heresy. They cut off the thumbs, tongue and genitalia of people thought to worship him.
The demons are more Always Chaotic Chaotic, actually. They are not inherently malicious, but both their presence in the world and any expression of their powers tends to wreak great havoc. Despite this, the demons often come off as more innocently amoral than evil, and those possessed by demons are allowed to keep them if they display the right temperament to keep them under control. Divines of the Bastard tend to regard His existence (and implicitly, the presence of demons in the world) as necessary to keep the world in a balance 'between the hot death that is chaos and the cold death that is stasis.' They also tend to refer to demons by the more neutral term "elemental," rather than the emotionally charged "demon."
Pet the Dog: dy Jironal gets a very brief one when Cazaril looks for him in his chancellory office, patting one of his couriers on the shoulder and encouraging him to do his best when the man reports winter snows making travel difficult.
The Plan: the gods can mostly only interfere in the world by nudging people, so they do a lot of these. Horseriver does this as well in his attempts to spite them.
Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Jokol and his men are frequently subject to speculation that they are pirates. If they in fact are, they are the kind that go around singing, drinking and ... that's about it.
Prince Charming: The role Cazaril desired for Royse Bergon to play to save Iselle from the eponymous curse. It didn't quite work out as intended.
It didn't work out the way Cazaril intended. It worked out exactly the way the Five Gods intended.
Religion is Magic: Especially if one of the gods takes an interest in you. Also, death magic actually consists of praying to the Bastard to help you commit a murder-suicide.
Religion Is Right: For the most part, though it isn't done in an anvilicious way: the church isn't completely immune to corruption, and The Hallowed Hunt presents a character with very legitimate reasons to hate the gods.
Rescue Romance: Ista self-consciously muses over this after Arhys saves her from raiders; the daydream is squashed when her identity is revealed to him and set on fire when she meets his wife.
Revival Loophole: This is Ias and dy Lutez's plan for breaking the curse. It doesn't go well.
The eponymous Curse of Chalion can only be drawn back by the gods through the will of a man who would lay down his life three times for the House of Chalion.
Referenced, subverted, and (to an extent) played straight in Paladin of Souls. The second time Ista tells her story (to dy Cabon), she says "Perhaps some third occasion shall release me." The third time, however, doesn't; it's the fourth, where she's finally, fully honest with herself, that does. However, the first was in the previous book, so the final one is the third in this particular book.
People commenting on how old Caz looks with his beard.
The Hallowed Hunt
The actual origin of Jokol Skullsplitter's name.
Whether Jokol is a pirate or a prince.
Hallana's beleaguered attendants constantly retrieving her braids, capes and pins, and repairing the small things damaged due to her magical Wake of Chaos.
Satan Is Good: Well, the Bastard is more akin to Loki. He may have a rude sense of humor and assist in the occasional (justifiable) murder-suicide, but his church runs orphanages and is largely responsible for the enlightened views of homosexuality that most of Chalion's world has.
Spare To The Throne: The death of the rebellious elder son of the Fox promotes Bergon from spare to the Heir of Ibra — and to the top of Iselle's short list of potential spouses. Then the death of Iselle's brother makes her the Heiress of Chalion.
Shows up peripherally in The Hallowed Hunt, as the eldest son of the hallowed King has already died. Succession politics aren't central to the plot, but they are a crucial detail.
Spirited Young Lady: Though technically a princess, Royesse Iselle is more spirited than rebellious and, in all, fits this trope to a T. This may stem from the author's love of good Regency and Victorian literature.
That Was the Last Entry: Cazaril finds an encrypted diary belonging to a man who practiced death magic. The encryption is easy, but tedious, to crack, so when he finds himself wanting to practice death magic in turn, he realizes that he only actually has to read the last entry of the diary to figure out what worked...