This book, and its sequel, Paladin of Souls, are two of my favourite books. I have read both of them multiple times, and I will read them multiple more times.
Cazaril is a man who has hit rock bottom. Of noble birth, his military career has been one disaster after another, in the service of the perennially unlucky ruler of Chalion. His final posting, as a castle warder, resulted in a nine-month siege; it only ended when he was ordered by his superiors to surrender. All his officers were ransomed except for him; he and the other unransomed men were sold as galley slaves. So, after the ship on which he was a slave is captured by the navy of the neighbouring country, Ibra, Cazaril walks back to the castle where he was a page as a boy, intending to beg for a place as a servant. He has lost his sword, his money, his career, and his health. But he has not lost his honour.
A stroke of luck gives him a little money and some decent clothes, so he can beg for shelter as himself, rather than having to pretend to be a commoner. And so he eventually ends up as the new secretary-tutor to the Royesse (princess-equivalent) Iselle and her lady-companion, Betriz.
Iselle is an intelligent and energetic young woman, somewhat more clever than her younger brother, Teidez, who is the heir to Chalion – their much-older half-brother, the ruler, being childless. When both young people are called to Court, it is Cazaril’s task to steer Iselle and Betriz through the dangerous waters of diplomacy.
And it is at Court that he learns that the ruling family of Chalion is under a curse (hence their perennial bad luck), and the only way to break it is for a man to lay down his life three times for the House of Chalion.
This sounds impossible; a man might lay down his life once, but three times?
But Cazaril, wholly committed to the Royesse Iselle, is determined to save her, at whatever cost to him, body and soul, is necessary.
This is a story of love, honour, courage, tragedy, sacrifice, faith, and theology. It’s a story of destiny, and free will. But it is ultimately the story of Cazaril, a man who has lost everything, regained much, and is willing to lose everything again to save his Royesse and his country.