The Curse of Chalion
can certainly be read as a standalone. It is an adventure novel of court politics and theology, set in a mediaeval mock-Iberia in a universe in which the five gods (the Father of Winter, the Mother of Summer, the Daughter of Spring, the Son of Autumn, and the Bastard) are very real, and not infrequently intrude on human affairs in a (mostly) limited number of usual ways.
The protagonist is Lupe dy Cazaril, sometime soldier, captain, and (most recently) galley slave, whom we meet walking 'home' to where he was once a page in a nobleman's court. He has very low expectations, and not much hope. His body is nearly broken, but his wits will prove to be (mostly) intact.
It would be hard for me to say much more about the plot without egregious 'spoilers'. I love almost everything about this novel. The characterizations are masterful; the plot is just intricate enough; the dialogue (and internal monologue of Cazaril) are Bujold's strongest point, with many examples of exactly the right word or phrasing throughout the book. Cazaril is a great protagonist, with enough flaws and foibles to make him real, and enough honor and courage to make him a suitable hero for a Romance. The 'Quintarian' theology (along with a 'Quadrene' heresy) is worked seamlessly into the story, and provides an additional layer of richness to the setting. The nature of sainthood (in that world) is an important plot point, but not in the way you might expect.
I am trying to imagine how someone could consider the writing to be 'overdone' or "too descriptive", and failing. If anything, part of Bujold's genius is her ability to convey a deep sense of place, time, and culture with a few strokes of the pen. There is no "infodumping" or tedious moustache-twirling scenes in which the villains lay out their plans to each other (as in, say, David Weber), no excessive fawning over the physical landscape. The scenes of introspection or self-recrimination never reach the level of tedious dithering (as they do in, say, C.J. Cherryh). The book is exactly as long as it should be, including just the right amount of post-climactic tidying up.
I have read the book cover-to-cover 3 times in English and once in French translation, and have browsed favorite scenes innumerable times. It is one of my primary "comfort books". Make of that what you will.
This is not YA fiction, unless you feel that any novel that does not contain explicit descriptions of sex acts is "YA". For what it's worth, the second novel (Paladin of Souls
) is one of the very few genre novels I've read whose protagonist is a middle-aged woman. As for the cover, I prefer the French edition: http://www.amazon.fr/gp/reader/2914370458/ref=sib_dp_pt/402-7464426-3692149#reader-link