I think Lois McMaster Bujold has exactly the right idea with the Chalion series. Each book stands alone, but if you have read the first one (Curse of Chalion), you get all the background material you need to understand the geographical, political, and religious systems of her world. This means that later books (Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt) can have fresh new characters and plots, but we don’t have to endure many info dumps. The magic system, meanwhile, gets more and more complex, as we learn more in each book. Perhaps best of all, the plot can wrap up at the end of each novel.
What I like best about Bujold is her wonderfully imaginative and complicated magic. I love how she lets the reader discover it a little at a time (it would be overwhelming if she threw it all at us at once). We learn about the magic as the characters do, and this makes for a lot of mystery and tension. Plots get deeper, more complex, and scarier throughout this series.
Bujold’s characters are always deep, especially the point-of-view character whose private thoughts we are privy to. In The Hallowed Hunt, that character is Ingrey, a nobleman who bears a wolf spirit and has been charged to transport the noblewoman Ijada to the capital, for she’s been accused of killing the prince who tried to rape her. The prince was dabbling in some dark sorcery which affected Ijada, and together Ingrey and Ijada must unravel the mystery of the spirit animals. As they learn more and more, the magic get deeper, darker, and actually quite frightening.
The Hallowed Hunt is another excellent installment in the Chalion series. I’m not rating it as highly as the others, though, because I felt like the climax at the end wasn’t quite as tight as the previous two books. Ingrey, the hero, ended up correctly guessing some of the solutions and Bujold threw in a bit of romantic fluff involving two beating half-hearts that made my eyes roll. But, all in all, it was a very good fantasy and I sincerely hope that Bujold will grace us with more Chalion stories in the future.
Not recommended for animal-lovers: Lots of spirits (mostly of animals) being pulled into the souls of people (mostly through throat-slitting), causing various powers to manifest. Complex world-building, but it just didn’t engage me the way I’d hoped. I read to 75% and skimmed the rest. For whatever reason I tend to like Bujold’s SciFi better than her fantasies.
Related: Penric & Desdemona (2015- )