A forty-year old widow goes on a holy pilgrimage in a fantasy analogue of Medieval Europe. She finds love and saves the world. It sounds lame, but that's the gimmick. This is a fantasy epic masquerading as a fantasy-romance.
This book makes me wonder how I could ever stand reading romance novels with barely legal ingenues. Ista is so intelligent, so wounded, so strong, so multi-faceted, so real
, that I feel like I can actually learn something by reading her story. Bujold creates a realistically flawed heroine, but avoids the Idiot Ball
, mostly by putting Ista's mistakes into her backstory. At twenty-two, she tried and failed to save the world. It was left to her daughter (in The Curse of Chalion
) to do it instead.
This failure has scarred our protagonist. It broke her, really. But now we see Ista drag herself up from the mire of disappointment and god-ridden madness to become...a lot more than just a dowager old maid. She rediscovers her physical strength, her personal authority, her god-given power and—at long last—her sexuality.
The one negative critique I have will be familiar to Bujold fans. Her novels are best read in order. If you haven't read the preceding books you will still be able to grasp the plot, but there will be many
obscure references to events of prior novels that will be mentioned but not explained. They are rather like HUGELY IMPORTANT Noodle Incidents
All of the characters are great; again, typically, Bujold has a whole stable of Ensemble Darkhorses
. But my favorite by far is The Bastard.
He's pretty laid back for a god. You can curse him and he just laughs at you, and drags you along into his disasters-that-end-up-saving-the-world anyway. He is very much a Trickster Mentor
, but when Ista looked into his eyes and sees unfathomable depths, facets folding in upon themselves in incomprehensible geometries, I got goosebumps. The Bastard is Ista's patron god, but he makes her Earn Her Happy Ending
, and the end is far from "they lived Happily Ever After." In a kind of documentary-ish way, Ista continues even bigger adventures, but the novel just happens to end.