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Lois McMaster Bujold – The Curse of Chalion

August 6, 2012

Re-Read. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold (2001)
Chalion, Book 1

Read my review of book:
3. The Hallowed Hunt

Length: 502 pages
Genre: Fantasy

Originally Read: 08 March 2007
Re-read Finished: 22 July 2012

The miracle you
pray for and the one you get
aren’t always the same…

Summary: The Castillar dy Cazaril is a man who is old before his time, scarred and broken by his time as a slave aboard a war galley – slavery he was sold into at the end of a military campaign gone horribly wrong. Now all he’s returning to this city of his youth, hoping for a quiet life as a minor servant in the castle of the provincial capitol. His appointment as secretary tutor to the lively young royesse Iselle – half-sister to the ruler of Chalion – seems to be just what he needs; enough to keep his mind active and to begin to heal both his injured spirit and broken body. But when Iselle is called to court – and Cazaril with her – his job becomes a much more dangerous prospect. The young royals are being pressed from all sides by courtiers eager for advancement, including the dy Jironal brothers, men whose motives Cazaril has very good reason to mistrust. When things seem the most dire, Cazaril must make the choice to sacrifice everything, but even that choice may not be enough to save Iselle from disaster, for a dark and sinister power holds the ruling family of Chalion in its thrall.

Original Review: I was a little puzzled at first by how slowly this book starts. Not unreadably or even uninterestingly slowly, by any means, but I guess I’m used to most books, fantasy or otherwise, having a “hook” that puts the characters in some kind of danger and gets the action moving fairly near the beginning. This book doesn’t really have an initial hook; a long time is spent setting up the characters and the setting and the politics. The titular curse isn’t even really mentioned until the action starts – at almost halfway (page-wise) through the book. That sounds pretty negative, but Bujold does such a good job in her (leisurely) drawing of the character that I stayed quite interested until we got to the heart of the action – and from there on out, I was unable to tear myself away. Overall, it was very well-done fantasy, plenty of action and suspense, a well thought-out theology, and fantastically vivid characters. A very absorbing read.

Thoughts on a Re-Read: This is the book that originally introduced me to Lois McMaster Bujold, and in the intervening years, she’s become one of my absolute favorite authors. (Incidentally, I originally picked up this book at random while browsing the SF/F section at the library, and had already ordered my own copy before I was halfway finished.) So I love it for that reason, but it’s also a really, really good book in its own rights.

To get the (mildly) negative comments out of the way: Even after reading this book several times, I still think the structure of the plot is kind of strange. The front half of the book and the back half are very, very different in terms of the critical problems the characters are facing, and in terms of the action and direction of the story. As I said, the curse of the title doesn’t show up until about halfway through, and what I think of as the main theme of the book – how the gods work in the world, and what it really means to be god-touched – doesn’t show up until some point after that. (As an aside, this made writing the summary really difficult; it’s a bit more spoilery than I’d usually like, but I thought that sticking to my usual rule of only describing the first 1/3 or so of the book just doesn’t do this one justice.) But while the structure is strange, it’s not bad strange. The characters are interesting enough to carry the first section of the book, even when it seems like not much else is happening, and although the direction of the story shifts several times, all of the tipping points fit without seeming abrupt or arbitrary. And on a re-read, I realized just how well they all fit – during the early parts of the book, Bujold is seeding every single theme and event that will become important later, it’s just all done so subtly that it’s easy to miss the first time around.

I also wanted to talk about the theology of this novel. I like my fantasy religious systems the way I like my fantasy magic systems: well-thought-out, logical, and internally consistent. And if Brandon Sanderson wins for best magic system, then I think Bujold easily takes the title for the religion. It’s a pentarchical religion, with the Father, Mother, Daughter, and Son each having one season (Winter, Summer, Spring, and Fall, respectively), and the Bastard claiming all things out of season. That by itself might not be anything special, but Bujold so seamlessly weaves a myriad of details – about the rituals, and beliefs, and the structures of the church – throughout the book, and all of those details make so much sense together, that it feels like a real living religion, rather than an invention. Furthermore, it’s a religion that I could easily see being true; I’m a pretty firm agnostic, but if there are gods, I would expect them to work exactly like this. And since a large chunk of the book is devoted to exploring the way the gods work in the world, and the realities of sainthood, that’s a pretty impressive accomplishment.

“But have you really understood how powerless the gods are, when the lowest slave may exclude them from his heart? And if from his heart, then from the world as well, for the gods may not reach in except through living souls. If the gods could seize passage from anyone they wished, then men would be mere puppets. Only if they borrow or are given will from a willing creature, do they have a little channel through which to act.” — p. 255

The characters and the dialogue easily live up to Bujold’s typically high standard. Cazaril is both very similar to Miles and very different; they both have have a similar wry and slightly self-deprecating sense of humor, and they’re both intelligent and adept at strategy and honorable, but where Miles has his self-doubt and his overconfidence and desire to prove himself, Cazaril is old enough to have a good idea of who he is, and wants nothing less than to stand out. Chalion‘s secondary characters are almost as interesting as Caz himself, and even the bad guys have some depth to them. The worldbuilding in general is just as smoothly and completely done as the religion-building, and this combined with the immediately sympathetic and interesting characters means that it’s a very, very easy story to get absorbed in, even (or especially?) when you know what’s coming next.

On first reading, I docked this book half a star for the strange structure, but after re-reading it, I’ve decided that all of the great things about it more than make up for the unconventional plotting. I can’t say enough good things about Bujold’s work; if you haven’t read her yet and like original and well-crafted SF/F, you’re doing yourself a major disservice. 5 out of 5 stars.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Drying Ink, Ela’s Book Blog, Mervi’s Book Reviews, Working Title
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Cazaril heard the mounted horsemen on the road before he saw them.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 135: “Well, surely that sensible widow was in on whatever distaff discussions went on overhead.” – woman’s work (archaic).
    .
  • p. 251: “Orico glanced around a little vaguely, as though afraid an offended god might pounce upon him out of some astral ambuscade at any moment.” – an ambush.
    .
  • p. 340: “The stunned and distraught chorus of cantors sang one last prayer, this time a threnody for the passage of the dead, their voices choked and wavering, and then they, too, turned to make their way out.” – a poem, speech, or song of lamentation, especially for the dead; dirge; funeral song.
    .
  • p. 485: “…the gelid bloated corpse…” – very cold; icy.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Carol permalink
    September 18, 2013 1:09 pm

    I’ve noticed a lot of reviewers comment that “Curse of Chalion” starts slowly. I suppose it’s a fair comment, but I was entranced from the beginning. I admire the way the world and the characters unfold, it’s like watching a flower bloom under time-lapse photography. One of the things I enjoy about Bujold’s writing is the skill with which she reveals a story without shifting point of view. Even though “Chalion” is written in the third person, we never know anything until Cazeril does. I found this a welcome relief from books where the “POV” shifts so often you need a scorecard, and it didn’t bother me at all that the curse is not explained until halfway through. Revelation of the curse came as a completely organic outgrowth of a story I was already deeply involved with. An exquisite fantasy novel.

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