The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Anthony G Williams

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Bujold is best known for her excellent Vorkosigan SF series (five of which I have already reviewed on this blog, with several more waiting to be read) but The Curse of Chalion is a classic medieval-with-magic fantasy.

The story is set on an unspecified planet with vague geography (no maps) which seems to be a kind of alternative Earth, judging by the plants and animals described. There are the usual small kingdoms in uneasy juxtaposition, fighting occasional wars in various combinations. Military technology consists of swords and crossbows. The religion has five gods with different roles (although one bunch of heretics only worships four), but while there is occasional evidence that the gods exist, they rarely get involved in human affairs. There isn't even any magic in the usual sense of practitioners casting spells, with one exception: Death Magic. Anyone can learn how to do this, with enough research and determination; it involves calling on one of the gods to send a demon to kill a hated enemy. The only catch is that the person working the magic invariably dies too.

The hero of the story, Cazaril, is a minor lord and former courtier and soldier who has fallen on hard times due to betrayal and subsequent slavery. Penniless, exhausted, and still half-crippled by injury, he makes his way to Valenda, a city in the land of Chalion in whose court he had worked as a young page some twenty years before, in search of some menial job and a place to live. There he meets Iselle, a royesse (princess) of Chalion, and finds himself reluctantly roped in to act as her secretary/tutor. He tries to impart some of his hard-won wisdom to the headstrong young royesse but when the action moves to the royal court in Cardegoss, Cazaril is tested to the limit in his determination to protect Iselle from the political and magical dangers surrounding her.

The setting sounds somewhat unoriginal as similar territory has been marched over countless times by other authors, but Bujold adds her own distinctive style. She is a natural and intelligent story-teller, injecting occasional flashes of wry humour (an element which tends to be sadly lacking in fantasy, in which authors often take their creations much too seriously). Her characterisation is as good as usual and the reader soon comes to care about her characters and what happens to them. There is something of the flavour of Guy Gavriel Kay in the writing, but Bujold is less dark and elegiac. After a slowish start the pace gradually accelerates and I read the last half of this substantial (500 page) tome in one sitting, late into the night: something which I rarely do.

The Curse of Chalion may appear somewhat formulaic but if you enjoy this kind of story this is about as good as it ever gets.

(An extract from my SFF blog)
 
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Anne Lyle

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I didn't find this book at all formulaic - indeed, it's refreshing to read about a hero who isn't young and athletic, who in fact considers himself old, unattractive and basically washed-up (although that in itself has become commonplace in fantasy noir!). Also, it's good to read such an intimate, character-driven story for a change, very different from the usual epic fantasies dominated by warfare. Which is not to say there isn't some action and violence - there is, particularly towards the end - but it's really all about a lone man and his devotion to duty.

I agree with the comparisons with GGK, though - perhaps because it's very obviously based heavily on late medieval Spain, it sits comfortably alongside "A Song for Narbonne" and "The Lions of Al-Rassan".
 

Anthony G Williams

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The formulaic aspect of it for me wasn't the plot or the characters but the setting. Mock-medieval-plus-a-bit-of-magic is becoming something of a cliche in my opinion.
 

Anne Lyle

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It is cliché, I guess, but I wouldn't call it "mock medieval". To my mind, that implies a rather anachronistic setting that tries to be medieval but relies on obvious trappings like swords and castles. Whereas Chalion is medieval through and through - it just has made-up countries and a non-Christian religion.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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I didn't find this book at all formulaic - indeed, it's refreshing to read about a hero who isn't young and athletic, who in fact considers himself old, unattractive and basically washed-up (although that in itself has become commonplace in fantasy noir!). Also, it's good to read such an intimate, character-driven story for a change, very different from the usual epic fantasies dominated by warfare. Which is not to say there isn't some action and violence - there is, particularly towards the end - but it's really all about a lone man and his devotion to duty.
That pretty much sums up the book's appeal for me. I loved the character of Cazeril. I was sorry not to see him in the subsequent books.
 

Boaz

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I thought The Curse of Chalion was very enjoyable. Caz seemed like a real person to me. He'd been young, strong, and full of ideals... but he returned as a beaten and broken man merely seeking a quiet life. The humanization of this man's desires and duty drove this story.

It was very nice that it comes across as a stand alone story without the necesssity of waiting for more books (Martin) or requiring an endless series (Weber).

Also, I don't need detailed explanations of how magic works, but Bujold's magic seemed plausible.
 

Vince W

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I agree. I enjoyed The Curse of Chalion very much. It was the first book by Bujold I ever read. I would never hesitate in recommending it.
 
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