I don’t know what anyone else looks for in their fantasy, but for me the number one requirement is characters I care about. This is hard to define, of course; I can’t describe what it is that creates emotional engagement in that way (if I could, I’d bottle it and sell it), but I know it when I see it.
And Cazaril is it, indubitably and without question. From the moment he walks onstage in his rags on page 1, he is a man I care deeply about, someone I’m rooting for all the way. He’s not great hero material (almost everything he’s been involved in seems to have gone wrong), he’s rarely called upon to wield a sword and he’s ill for most of the book, but he is a towering character of a kind that’s regrettably rare in all fiction, not just fantasy.
The other characters are fully rounded personalities, too. The princess who doesn’t like being manipulated and decides to take control of her fate. The handmaiden who doesn’t angst when rejected, but quietly waits for her moment. The mad woman who turns out to be far more interesting than that description would suggest. And the villains who are just as much tragic victims of their fate as anyone else. And hallelujah for that.
It’s curious that in many ways the characters fall into traditional fantasy stereotypes: the battle-weary warrior; the feisty princess about to be forced into an unwelcome marriage; the playboy prince; the evil advisor to the king. And so on. And yet they never felt in the least bit stereotypical, to me. Nor were their actions ever predictable.
The plot centres on returning warrior Cazaril, still recovering after being betrayed into slavery, and looking for work where he was previously employed as a page. To his surprise, he’s given the job of tutor/secretary to lively princess Iselle and her companion Betriz, and then accompanies them to the royal court with all its intrigues. From there, things roll along nicely, and only one stupendous coincidence near the end rocked the credibility somewhat. This is not a high-action tale, and most of the tension comes from the history (read: enmity) between Cazaril and the man who betrayed him. I liked very much that Cazaril isn’t hell-bent on revenge, though, and just wants to keep his head down and survive as best he can.
The magic is low-key, and revolves around the five gods, the Father, Mother, Son, Daughter and Bastard, and the way they interact with their human followers. I’m not normally a big fan of god intervention, but maybe that’s because few authors execute the idea as well as it’s done here.
What didn’t I like? The names, for one thing. If you’re going to have a traditional monarchy, it’s just as easy to call the participants king, queen, prince, princess, etc. Inventing all-too-similar terms like roya, royina, royse and royesse is just downright confusing. And if the titles are bad, the character names are worse: how are you supposed to pronounce Teidez and Betriz, anyway? I kept wanting to call them Tiddles and Beetroot. Then there’s the romance, which all felt ever so slightly perfunctory.
But truly my quibbles were few and minor. This is a beautifully written book, with a memorable and wonderful main character, a plot that doesn’t depend on villains who are evil just because, and a resonant ending which brought me to tears. It’s not a sword-waving type of book, depending more on dialogue and reason to drive things forward. And I absolutely loved the saints who fell on each other with glee (there’s someone else like me! How is it for you?) and the long, detailed and gloriously funny theological debates (which is not something I ever thought to write). Highly recommended. Five stars.