The Curse of Chalion is Lois McMaster Bujold’s second fantasy novel. Known mostly for her science fiction Miles Vorkosigan series, she has rarely dabbled in fantasy. I haven’t read her first one, The Spirit Ring, but if this is any indication, I should run out and buy it immediately. The Curse of Chalion is a beautiful tale told with flair and style.
Cazaril is a broken man. A former courtier and soldier for Chalion, Cazaril was betrayed years ago and made a slave on an enemy galley. He endured horrific torture, but he is finally free. He wants nothing more than to return to the household of the Dowager Provincara, where he served as a page in his youth. He’ll take anything, even a menial kitchen job.
The gods, however, will not allow him to fade into obscurity. He’s welcomed warmly, fed and clothed, and named as secretary to the Royesse Iselle, the Provincara’s daughter and the sister of the next ruler of Chalion. This job will take him where he doesn’t want to go: the court of Chalion in the city of Cardegoss. The people who betrayed him are now in positions of power, with the current ruler in their pocket. Cazaril does not look forward to having to deal with these people.
What Cazaril doesn’t know is that an even greater evil hangs over the royal family. A shadow surrounds not just the family, but anybody who enters their circle. Cazaril is left to try and figure out what he can do to remove this blight. He finds himself forced to resort to some of the most vile and forbidden magic to try and solve the problem. While it works in the short term, Cazril finds that this puts him on a path of destiny, a tool of the Five Gods with a fate unknown but not looking very pleasant.
I’m a huge fan of the Vorkosigan series, and I think Bujold is one of the best writers out there. It still took me a little bit of time to decide to try this book. Am I glad I finally did, though. In The Curse of Chalion, Bujold shows her masterful characterization ability with a cast of unique and interesting people. Cazaril is the ultimate reluctant hero. He just wants to be left alone. He wants to join the Provincara’s household, stay under the radar of his enemies and live out his life in peace. When it becomes apparent that destiny won’t allow him this luxury, he tackles his job with resigned dedication. He has a gentle sense of humour, and he has a very sweet romance with Betriz, the Royesse Iselle’s lady-in-waiting. When the three of them are together, conspiring or trying to decide what to do as events go from bad to worse, the dialogue is snappy; each of them brings his or her own point of view to the proceedings. These are not cardboard characters. The romance slowly grows, appearing one-sided at first, but Bujold slowly reveals that the feelings are mutual. By this time, of course, Cazaril thinks he’s going to be dead soon, so he tries hard to push Betriz away. The whole thing is tragic.
There are far too many characters to go into great detail with each individual, but let me talk about the villain for a minute. In dy Jironal, Bujold creates a truly three-dimensional villain -- he has a lust for power, but he is also practical. He works with Cazaril when he has to, and his plans are thought out well. Cazaril and his compatriots are forced to actually outthink him rather than winning due to the villain’s stupidity. There aren’t any “moustache-twirling moments,” though several times in battle come close. However, those can be attributed to the stress of the situation. I am really impressed with dy Jironal and the true tension he brings to the story. Will Cazaril be able to defeat him? Probably, but only because it doesn’t seem like it will be a book with a downbeat ending. But the doubt is always there, as dy Jironal maneuvers Cazaril into one desperate move after another.
Cazaril is fighting a war on two fronts. He’s trying to prevent dy Jironal from taking power by getting the Royesse’s brother under his power for the inevitable time when the current ruler dies. But this is only peripheral to the curse hanging over the Royesse’s family. Cazaril must figure out a way to end the curse and still deprive dy Jironal of his ambitions. The plot has a sort of epic feel, in that Cazaril ends up journeying all over the land, but it is also a very intimate plot. What it boils down to is that Cazaril must save a young woman for whom he has great respect and affection, as well as having romantic feelings for her assistant. This sort of plot would not be very interesting if it wasn’t for the characters, so it’s imperative that Bujold populate her story with interesting people. Thankfully, she does.
Bujold is to be complimented on her world-building. It shouldn’t surprise any readers of the Vorkosigan series that she creates a vivid, detailed world full of intriguing complications, people, lands and realistic politics, with some break-away provinces, neighbors who have to deal with their own insurrections and a nice combination of allies and enemies to Chalion. The line of succession in Chalion is managed well and the whole thing tied together nicely.
Where Bujold should really be lauded, though, is in her use of religion. The world has five gods: The Mother, The Father, The Sister and the Brother, along with the Bastard, although some countries do not believe in the Bastard. When someone dies, part of the funeral is to have a representative from each god come to the funeral, release its sacred animal, and see which animal will go to the deceased. Whichever god’s animal does this is the god who has taken the spirit of the deceased. If no animals go to the corpse, then the spirit is doomed to wander the land, or something else has happened. This mythology becomes integral to the story, and is the first indication that Cazaril is going to have a lot more to deal with than he planned. Bujold creates an intriguing religious system that is central to the plot.
Ultimately, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It drags very slightly in the middle, but that’s almost unnoticeable -- and the only flaw I can pick out in this book. If you’re a fantasy fan, pick this one up. If you’re a Vorkosigan fan but have been reluctant to try a Bujold that’s not a Vorkosigan book, don’t be. Take the plunge and pick this one up. You won’t regret it. Bujold’s hit another home run.