This is a one-off fantasy novel by Lois McMaster Bujold that she wrote a decade of so before The Curse of Chalion really thrust her into the fantasy world of publishing. It’s strong in some ways — the kind of humor we’ve come to expect, the creation of characters, the action sequences, and a sense that magic has to be chained to the nature world in understandable ways (as opposed to the kind of Wishing for More Wishes of Harry Potter’s charms and hexes). There’s weaknesses as well: I’ve written before that I don’t really like when Bujold writes about Earth of the present or past — this came up in Proto Zoa, but it’s true here as well. This novel takes place in a more or less pre-Renaissance Italy and there’s so much more research that probably needed to be done to make a more convincing version of that world. For example, I can’t track the naming scheme in this novel. The characters have a kind of random assigned Italian-sounding name, that I wonder how well-tied to regions these would be. I think there’s an attempt to avoid historical connections, but it makes me wonder about whether or not they make much sense.
The result is a familiar, but uncharacteristically weak novel by one of my favorite writers. That’s a sad realization of course, but what is most frustrating about the novel is that for all the happens and all the exciting elements of the novel, it’s kind of boring.