So, the past few days, I've been slowly devouring the second book (in order of the way they were written) of Lois McMaster Bujold's World of the Five Gods, Paladin of Souls.
Much like the first book, it's a rich feast, although less broad in its scope than its predecessor.
We open following the funeral of the old Provincara, who's firm grip has kept Valenda running through the years. Her daughter, the Dowager Royina Ista, long thought mad, is annoyed to be cooped up in her mother's house, expected to either take her mother's seat or worse be kept away from society as the presumed mad woman everyone thought she was. (Following the lifting of the curse in the last book, Ista's back to semi-normal.)
A chance meeting with a pilgrimage passing through Valenda inspires Ista with the idea of escaping her hereditary prison, a small pilgrimage of her own, under the pretense of praying for her daughter, the Royesse Iselle and her Royce-Consort Bergon to have a son. After imploring Chancellor Cazaril, the Dy Gurda brothers, Foix and Ferda ride down with a small company to accompany the pilgrimage, and a last minute substitution leads to Learned dy Cabon, a priest of the Bastard, to be the spiritual conductor of the event, much to the wailing and gnashing of teeth by those who love Ista and wish to show that love by confining her.
The pilgrimage proceeds fairly normally at first, with Ista riding under an assumed name and a courier named Liss roped into playing Lady-in-Waiting. We meet much of the accompanying party, and like Ista begin to know and love them. Problems begin to arise when a demon possessed bear attacks Ista on the road, only to be slain by Foix. As demons in this setting are prone to doing, the demon hitches a ride with Foix. Not long after, the party runs afoul of a Roknari raiding party out of Jokona. By now Ista has dreamed of a man, while Learned dy Cabon has dreamed of his death in just such an event.
With a bunch of moving around, Ista gets captured while most of the party escapes. Ista does get rescued a province north of where she was captured by Lord Arhys, who's castle, Porifors guards the pass into enemy Jokona.
Problem of course being that things at Porifors aren't exactly as cut and dried as the seem, what with Arhys's demon possessed bride Cattilara, his seemingly ill bastard half-brother Illvin appearing in Ista's dreams, and as we find later on, a dead lord reanimated by one very annoyed demon who wasn't expecting his wife to be quite as strong willed, given that Cattilara is first described by her brother-in-law as the type you could put a candle by one ear and blow it out thorough the other. (That's a paraphrase, and close enough to the original quote.)
Quite a puzzle to unravel, particularly when The Bastard entices Ista into taking on some of his gifts, like second sight. The complex mess gets more interesting as members of the original party return, and Prince Sordso of Jokona shows up with his Regent mother, Joen. Which is about the time we start figuring out how all of this ties in with the fist book, and eventually some very well written moments as the knot becomes untangled.
There are a few passages of breathtaking beauty in these pages, not the least of which involves finding a way to get Arhys free of his theological damnation/sundering, or when Ista finally forgives herself, her husband, and his lover (the lover who also happens to be Arhys's father) for what happened prior to the first book.
To be sure, this is another one I'd recommend to folks, but only after they read The Curse of Chalion.