The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Apr 9, 2016
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

By way of introductory remarks, I'd like to provide a dictionary definition (Cambridge English for those who care) that should give some pointer as to where my mind is going with this review.

Perfect (adj): Complete and correct in every way, of the best possible type, or without fault.

Now, one of the things I like about the first definition is it means there can be no perfect fantasy books, for the list of things expected in a fantasy book is so large and at points mutually exclusive that no book can be complete and correct in every way. But there can be perfect examples of particular types of fantasy books, and books that are perfect by our own internal demands.

The Curse of Chalion is not a particularly standard fantasy book. It has many standard conceits; the pseudo-Medieval world (here vaguely-Spain), the intervention of the magical/supernatural/divine into a world seemingly following the same rules as our own, kings and queens, knights and knaves, and so on. The foundational conceits are used to tell a different type of story though. This is no coming of age, or discovery of an incredible hidden world, of tale of a great war.

This is, first and foremost, the story of Lupe dy Cazaril, a noble and soldier who has been hurt in body and spirit by a spell as a galley slave. He returns to Valenda, where he once served as a page, seeking some minor role or charity from its ruler. Cazaril is somewhat alarmed when the Dowager Provincara instead makes him Secretary-Tutor to her granddaughter, Iselle dy Chalion, a quick-witted and headstrong teenager who is half-sister to Chalion's current Roya of Chalion. He laments that he'd rather be under siege again. But he accepts and gives himself whole-heartedly to the service of the Princess.

This is a story of healing, of guidance and friendship, of ethics and resilience. There is also court intrigue, swordsmanship, and magic, but they are garnishes and sauces upon the dish. The greatest use of the fantastic here is in examining the relationship between the divine and man, and of the idea of sainthood. In that respect, The Curse of Chalion lies in similar company as Discworld thematically, and perhaps claim ties of kinship with Kushiel's Dart and The Golem and the Jinni; The Goblin Emperor might be it's closest relation in the genre in a lot of ways, but lacks that trace of providence and faith in its make-up that so distinguishes Bujold's work here. The Curse of Chalion isn't particularly standard, but it's not wildly different; the scion of a minor but well-famed family.

A very, very distinguished scion. This is perfect by the standards of the internal demands of Peat Long, a complete and correct blueprint of what fantasy novels of healing should look like. It is a virtuoso display of writing, for Bujold excels at everything she sets her mind to here. The prose is the first thing to be noticed here; very lucid, evocative without getting bogged down in detail, full of Cazaril's narrative voice and at its best when describing his emotions:

"He was laughing. And crying. Teetering on the ragged edge of . . . something that frightened him more than the outraged bath man."

Through that voice, and the keenness of Cazaril's eye, we meet the characters of Chalion and a compelling cast they are indeed. The Dowager Provincara is Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey without the cattiness; Iselle's brother Teidez an interesting study in manhood blooming frustrated and without direction. Perhaps the most compelling of the characters (other than Cazaril himself) is Martou dy Jironal, the austere and ruthless villain of the piece. This is a cast of stock types but all given little touches of humanity that makes them jump off the page and into the imagination. What allows that to happen is the strength of Bujold's observational powers, her ability to notice the details of how we interact and place it in her characters.

The plot here is a slow burning one, ceding the limelight as it must to Cazaril's regenerating sense of self, humanity, and place, and his friendship with Iselle and her companion Betriz dy Ferrej. However, I think that is only to its betterment as there is no need to rush, no need to fill it with extraneous details. We simply get to enjoy the slow probing and dissection of Chalion's corruption through Cazaril and his brilliant, passionate charges. Make no mistake - this book could have been written very well from Iselle's or Betriz's PoV, for they are intelligent and sympathetic heroines in their own right, and Bujold frequently has them pushing the action with Cazaril scrambling after them. As it should be, really.

Is there anything I consider less than perfect here? The worldbuilding doesn't spark the same joy as everything else here, leaving a sense of leading actors delivering career performances on a painted stage. Nothing wrong with it, and the pivotal points in the history and theology are well-drawn, but I don't think Bujold gives the minor details the love needed to make them shine. Cazaril's romance is sweet, but I'd have vaguely preferred it to be with someone nearer his age. The ending invites charges of being too neat (although, ultimately, I only consider this charge). And I wouldn't have objected to this book having another two hundred odd pages so I could have spent more time with it.

Then again, I was up until three in the morning in the need to finish this, so perhaps better not. I also struggle to see how one could have added those pages without making this a worse story, given how compact and neatly put together. There is nothing wasted in The Curse of Chalion. It is part of what makes me love it so much. Ultimately though, the perfection of The Curse of Chalion lies in the power of its journey, the joy of its victories over the petty and evil. I can't imagine enjoying a book more than The Curse of Chalion and that's what makes it perfect to me.
I can think of few books I have enjoyed as much as The Curse of Chalion. You describe its strengths and its (very minor) weaknesses well. Cazeril is one of my favorite characters in fiction, and ultimately one of the most heroic. It's not that he is never afraid or that he never complains. He is often afraid and he frequently complains. But none of that stops him from taking on whatever task needs to be done, no matter how difficult, no matter how grueling.

And (although it never occurred to me before) I agree that either Iselle or Betriz could have carried the book as the heroine on her own. They are smart, brave, feisty ... all those things that people seem to want in a female protagonist. Instead (and rather courageously) Bujold chooses a battered man, aged beyond his thirty-five years, a man as deeply in need of healing as the kingdom he serves.
Oh yes. Cazaril as the hero is an act of genius on several counts - just wanted to highlight how well-drawn and full of agency Iselle and Betriz were.
A sequel from the viewpoint of either girl would be very welcome. Where Paladin of Souls left off, it is obvious that a time of great events is ahead for Chalion. But Bujold seems absorbed in other projects, and since I am enjoying the Penric and Des novellas (not in quite the same way or to the same extent, but nevertheless I like them a lot) I can't complain.

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