Why I listened to it: I loved The Curse of Chalion (scroll down for review) and other Bujold titles I have listened to. This book is universally recommended by people who have liked those same books - I was also told it was more romantic than Chalion so it was a no brainer really. I picked it up at Audible recently, initially disappointed that Lloyd James wasn't reprising his narration. However, Kate Reading has become my new favourite narrator.
What it's about: (from Goodreads) Three years have passed since the widowed Dowager Royina Ista found release from the curse of madness that kept her imprisoned in her family's castle of Valenda. Her newfound freedom is costly, bittersweet with memories, regrets, and guilty secrets - for she knows the truth of what brought her land to the brink of destruction. And now the road - escape - beckons.... A simple pilgrimage, perhaps. Quite fitting for the Dowager Royina of all Chalion.
Yet something else is free, too - something beyond deadly. To the north lies the vital border fortress of Porifors. Memories linger there as well, of wars and invasions and the mighty Golden General of Jokona. And someone, something, watches from across that border - humans, demons, gods.
Ista thinks her little party of pilgrims wanders at will. But whose? When Ista's retinue is unexpectedly set upon not long into its travels, a mysterious ally appears - a warrior nobleman who fights like a berserker. The temporary safety of her enigmatic champion's castle cannot ease Ista's mounting dread, however, when she finds his dark secrets are entangled with hers in a net of the gods' own weaving.
In her dreams the threads are already drawing her to unforeseen chances, fateful meetings, fearsome choices. What the inscrutable gods commanded of her in the past brought her land to the brink of devastation. Now, once again, they have chosen Ista as their instrument. And again, for good or for ill, she must comply.
What worked for me (and what didn't): This book blew me away. The combination of an exceptional narrator and most excellently plotted story and clever, engaging characters was a total win for me. There is very little I can say on the negative side, other than that when it ended I felt sad because I wanted it to keep going. But I can't really criticise that - the story was told after all. It's just that I wasn't ready to let go.
I don't want to say too much more about the plot because I believe it is best to discover the twists and turns of it, the joy of it, the mouth-hanging-open-in-stunned-surprise moments of it, on one's own. There is humour and friendship, romance against the odds, even a bit of a love triangle (sort of), a minor secondary romance, an older woman (well, in her early 40s) who discovers herself and a new purpose in life, who discovers joy and laughter and self determination. There are wonderful heroes and, in my opinion, the romantic interest is the best of them all.
As much as I enjoyed the story, I also thought the plotting was terribly clever and tight. Everything is there for a reason, even if it is not immediately apparently. The world building is superb, adding to the atmosphere of the first book but not dependant upon it. Similarly the story is linked to the first, but it can be read as a stand alone (although I think both books are just so good that I'd start with Chalion and then go on to this one.) Ista is a fascinating character, funny and wry (she reminded me a little of Cordelia in Shards of Honor/Barrayar) but was also uniquely herself.
And the narration was just excellent. Kate Reading has a lovely crisp British voice which I think fits so very well with fantasy. It's the kind of accent everyone uses in swords and sandals movies where even though they characters are mostly Greek or Roman, they all seem to have English accents. The story is told from Ista's deep third person POV. What struck me the most about Ista's dialogue and the narration of it, is that Reading has that rare talent of being able to vocally distinguish between what is spoken and what is thought. I don't believe I've heard it done so well before.
Reading also does wonderfully masculine voices as well - distinct enough that I didn't need to rely on dialogue tags in the text. Lis, a young courier girl is given youthful, somewhat naive (but not innocent) tones and Ista's maturity is just as evident. The humour and the tension, the angst and the excitement are so well delivered - I found excuses to listen and didn't want to miss a single word of it.