The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

the-curse-of-chalion-by-lois-mcmaster-bujold coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 2001
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by David Hart

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For two generations there has been under a curse on the nation of Chalion, and especially on its ruling family. Somehow it is always unfortunate in war, honest men become corrupt, love turns to betrayal. So far it seems not to have affected the young prince and princess, raised away from the court by their grandmother. Into this situation comes Cazaril, appointed secretary-tutor to the princess. He has suffered his own share of misfortune: born to minor nobility, after a variety of posts he was betrayed by an enemy and has spent the last 18 months as a galley slave. It is from his point of view that we see the story unfold, as he learns about the nature of the curse and how it can be removed.

That’s the gist of the story, and knowing this background should help you get more out the first 200 pages of the book than you otherwise would have done. It isn’t until near the end of the book that it becomes clear just what has been going on; indeed it the sort of book that will be appreciated even more on re-reading, when you can better understand how everything fits together. Having said that, it reads perfectly well from the start: it’s just that the first-time reader will miss the significance of some features. In fact the story is well paced, keeping the reader’s interest throughout and with a suitable climax at the end. Though the book is 500 pages long, that’s the right length for the material, there’s no padding.

The writing is good. Most of the characterization is done well; particularly the females, who tend towards feistiness. However not enough attention is paid to the villains, who spend most of their time off-stage; as a result we hardly get to know them. Cazaril is perhaps too passive at first, though not without some excuse; and he tends to alternate too quickly between physical infirmity and combat readiness. Still, he provides nice touches of slightly sardonic humor. The plot is very reasonable overall, though there are a couple of facets that are a little predictable; and Cazeril has one, rather clumsy, “Oops, I’d forgotten that” moment. A reason for the curse’s existence is provided, though it’s a bit tenuous; but no explanation is offered for how the Royals came to know about it.

A good feature of the book that I’ve not so far mentioned is the theology. There are five deities, one for each season plus a spare. At first they seem to be just an excuse for festivals and a convenient source of swearwords; but then their importance becomes more evident. They function at funerals by affecting the behavior of sacred animals. It transpires that this is normally the limit of their influence in the world; but if a man happens to be in the right frame of mind and so chooses, he can become a god-touched ‘saint’, a medium through whom a god can act to change the world. This concept is a good method of constraining the gods, though I’d have liked it to have been made clearer why more priests are not affected. Tangential to this, for extramundane reasons Cazaril acquires a tumour which may contain human body parts. You probably thought Bujold was making it up; no, such tumours do exist in reality (though for different reasons!).

In summary, this is an engrossing, well-written fantasy. Though short of perfection, it’s certainly a book you’ll want to keep and read again.

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