The Curse of Chalion
Lois McMaster Bujold
Harper Eos, 2001
Nominated for a World Fantasy award in 2002 The Curse of Chalion marked a shift for Bujold from the sci-fi adventure of Miles Vorkosigan to a more sedately paced fantasy novel. As commander of a border garrison Castillar Lupe de Cazaril held the fort against the enemy for longer then anyone expected. Peaceful negotiations prevailed and the fort was sold to the enemy. Unfortunately for Caz he was “mistakenly” left off the list of ransomed men and quickly sold into slavery on Rocknari galley. Returning home from several years of exile he is looking not for revenge but for a quiet job as servant or kitchen help. Instead he finds himself quickly placed as the secretary and tutor to the Royina Iselle, whose brother will inherit the throne. Caz is forcibly thrust back into court politics where he must do his best to safeguard the well-being of Iselle while at the same time confronting the very men who forced him into exile.
While playing Dragon Age for some reason a particular theological discussion called to time The Curse of Chalion and I impulsively decided it was time I reread the novel. So here we are. The Curse of Chalion isn’t really a tale of high adventure and big action, though it has it moments, but rather I quieter look at how the actions of one man can change things for the better. The novel spends a considerable amount of time, somewhat stealthily, discussing the religion and religious practices of Chalion. There aren’t any long expository moments in which religion is discussed or explained and, where such infrequent do crop, are usually handled so they are neatly disguised with both character and plot development.
The Curse of Chalion is filled with excellent characters from the vibrant and good-hearted Pali, a solider friend of Caz, who could easily have been a throwaway character but becomes important to the plot later in the novel to even the villainous March dy Jironal. There are, of course, a number of standouts whose attention and characterization far outshine the others. Amongst these is Umegat, the menagerie master who is not quite what he seems and who has a deeper role and personality that only come across over time. There is, of course, the Royina Isabelle who, despite her early display of spunk and moxie when dealing with a corrupt judge, easily could have been your typically spoiled princess. Instead, under the tutelage of Caz, she blossoms into a political whirlwind with an iron spine. Though perhaps, most important, there is Caz himself. While certainly haunted by his trials on the slave galley Caz has passed through despair and anger to a place of almost peace wherein the world, despite its flaws, is once again a thing of wonder and joy. Though, while he may view the world fresh eyes and with something of an old man’s body, his mind remains sharp and it is his mind, passion, and loyalty to his friends that really make him such a fascinating character. As another character relates later in the story Caz is incorruptible and, while that refers to a very specific set of circumstances late in the game, Caz exudes a sense of openness and purity from page one.
The Curse of Chalion sets forth very specific theological and magical rules that Bujold follows to the letter. Or at least when deviations from the commonly accepted rule crop up they end up being more of a modification to our perspective then outright challenge to the structure Bujold initially sets. It is a magnificent thing and never once detracts from the story instead both the story and the theological structure of her world are so intricately tied that both influence one another almost seamlessly. In fact this idea and method is explored even further in the World Fantasy Award winning semi-sequel Paladin of Souls. While my reactions may seem a bit subdued (there is a week full of fever, coughing, and mucus since I finished reading the novel) I really think The Curse of Chalion is one of the best fantasy novels of the decade and I couldn’t recommend it higher.