The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold


Lemming of Discord
Jun 4, 2006
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lupe dy Cazaril is a former soldier in the army of Chalion. Taken prisoner after a siege, he has been sold into bondage, made a galley-slave and been rescued. Returning to his old home of Valenda, he seeks service with the Provincara dy Baocia. He is made tutor to Iselle, the sister of the heir to the kingdom, a position initially without power or influence. When Iselle and her brother are summoned to the royal court by their brother, the ailing king, Cazaril finds himself in a political nest of vipers, pitted against an old enemy who is very unhappy to see that he has survived, and a curse that may be beyond his abilities to thwart.

What happens when your life is taken from you and you are left abused, beaten and broken, and then abruptly returned to your former life?

The Curse of Chalion is a novel about trauma, about a man who has faced serious degradation and danger but lived to tell of it, and afterwards has to find his way back to something approaching normalcy. Unfortunately, whilst this is going on his country is under threat from external enemies and also from internal strife.

This is a fascinating novel, one that at first glance bears resemblances to Guy Gavriel Kay's classic The Lions of Al-Rassan (particularly the very strong Spanish inspiration) and to George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, particularly the political manoeuvrings within the royal court which start with mild barbed words but soon escalate to intimidation, murder and the threat of civil war. There's also a similarity to Robin Hobb's work, particularly the tight focus on a single character and its exploration of trauma and recovery. But it's also very much a Lois McMaster Bujold novel. Those who have sampled her other work, such as the long-running SF Vorkosigan Saga, will find similarities in the exploration of relationships, tragedy and redemption, although it is written in a different style.

The book lives and dies by the characterisation of Cazaril, the main protagonist. Although the book is not written in the first person, we spend the entire novel perched on Cazaril's shoulder to the point where it might as well be. Cazaril is a broken man, damaged goods, who tries to piece his life back together by retreating to his childhood home and station as a page to the royal family of Chalion but finds that his gifts and experience elevate him to a new position as a teacher and mentor to the younger members of the family. Cazaril is a refreshing fantasy protagonist; he is not a badass, sword-wielding prodigy or a reluctant youngster nevertheless gifted with vast sorcerous powers, but a middle-aged man who comes into situations he has little control over and has to find a way of negotiating his way through them, for good or ill.

The secondary cast is a well-drawn and varied lot, and the worldbuilding is impeccable. There's an interesting way of handling magic and the religion and politics of Chalion are drawn in some detail. Bujold's prose, honed at this point by twenty years of experience, is also excellent, evocative without being overwrought and a genuine pleasure to read.

The Curse of Chalion (*****) is a compelling, richly-detailed fantasy novel with superb, multifaceted characters and a strong sense of direction and purpose. It may just be Bujold's finest novel to date, in an exceptional career. It is available now in the UK and USA. It has a sequel, Paladin of Souls, and a prequel, The Hallowed Hunt.
One of my favourite books (and series). I think you have given a clear picture of it, though I'd personally mention the religious side - which I find refreshingly handled as well. There are also the Penric and Desdemona novellas which are well worth reading.
Wow! What a great review. I love a lot of Lois' work. I still think Shards of Honor is one of the finest SF ever written. Too bad it degenerated into the Miles phenomenon.

I don't like much Fantasy, but I might very well give this one a try.

Edit: I've now bought it. Your review was SO much better than the blurb on Amazon. Only reading that I would never have bought the book.
Good job, Wert. Read it about eighteen years ago... it was a nice break from sixteen year old super saviors. Cazaril is an interesting character to compare with Martin's Jorah Mormont and Tyrion Lannister and Joe Abercrombie's Sand dan Glokta, Monzcarro Murcatto, and Caul Shivers.
I've read it multiple times. The other books in the series are enjoyable, too, but I think the first is still the best.

Cazeril is not only a refreshing change from sixteen-year-old saviors, but a nice change from all the anti-heroes out there. He's a man of integrity and self-sacrificing courage (even when he is terrified, as he often is) without ever coming across as the least bit self-righteous.
Well, you’ve inspired me to check this series out! I always like a more personal fantasy, like Hobb’s Farseer. Great review.
Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Three years have passed since a sorcerous curse was lifted from the royal family of Chalion. Chalion and the western kingdom of Ibra have allied and now prepare for a military campaign against the Roknari principalities to the north. Ista, the Dowager Royina, is far removed from such concerns. The lifting of the curse has returned to her a sense of self and intelligence, but her family is still treating her as a pariah. The removal of her children to the capital and the death of her mother have left her without purpose, so she plans to make a pilgrimage in honour of her memory. But it appears that destiny still has plans in mind for her.

Paladin of Souls is a loose sequel to The Curse of Chalion, although you could probably get away with not reading the previous novel. This book is primarily a stand-alone story revolving around Ista, the mother of the new Royina of Chalion, who finds herself at a loose end as her family moves on with their lives without her. Ista was a minor character in The Curse of Chalion, where she was often confused and frightened. Here, in her own story, we meet a much more capable and intelligent woman, but one who is frustrated at being treated as a near-invalid by her family.

This is an unusual epic fantasy in some senses. The protagonist being a middle-aged woman is a relative rarity in the genre and its primary thematic concern being with establishing or re-establishing a purpose in later life is a universally relatable one. There is also a lot of more familiar fantasy tropes, including romance, epic battles and formidable sorcery. Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most talented authors working in either science fiction or fantasy, with excellent prose skills and great characters, and she blends these elements together again her to create a novel which is vivid and engrossing.

It's not quite as successful as The Curse of Chalion, although it's close. Paladin of Souls has a somewhat slighter story than its forebear but unfolds over around a hundred extra pages, making it feel at least a little flabbier and less-focused than the previous novel. The book also spends a lot of time establishing the secondary cast in the opening chapters, but surprisingly only a couple of them played major roles in the denouement, the rest either just hang around or disappear for large stretches of time. They're a fun bunch of characters but ultimately don't feel like they have a clear purpose in the book.

That said, Bujold's world of the Five Gods remains an intriguing creation, effectively a magic-heavy version of Iberia in the 15th Century (fans of Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan will particularly enjoy this novel and its forebear, I believe). The characters are sharp and some of the plot twists are quite clever.

Paladin of Souls (****½) is a strong fantasy novel revolving around themes of love, war, family and honour. It's one of Lois McMaster Bujold's most critically feted novels, having won Best Novel in three of the genre's biggest awards, the Hugo, Nebula and Locus. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

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