The Curse of Chalion
Lois McMaster Bujold
After a long and increasingly disasterous military career that left him betrayed and sold as a galley slave, Lupe dy Cazaril has finally escaped to his native land of Chalion. With literally nothing let but the clothes on his back, he limps back to the castle of Valenda, hoping to beg a lowly position from the Dowager Provincara, whom he served in his youth. To his surprise–and slight distress–the Dowager not only welcomes him with open arms, but makes him tutor for her headstrong granddaughter, the Royesse Iselle, whose brother is heir to the throne of Chalion. Soon Cazaril must journey to the capital with Royesse Iselle, where he finds that he must not only protect his charge from political intrigue, but also a terrible curse that has twisted the fate of the royal house for generations.
There are a lot of things to recommend about this book. First and foremost are the characters: Bujold takes some common tropes and breathes amazing life into them. There are lots of battered warriors with tragic pasts, but Cazaril doesn’t clench his jaw while a single tear rolls down his rugged, manly cheek–at the beginning of the book, he’s still liable to burst into uncontrollable fits of weeping. You really believe that he has been traumatized, and so the healing he undergoes–and his growth into a hero, diplomat, and prophet–is far more moving. Similarly, Iselle starts out as another headstrong, idealistic princess (and in fact, at first I thought she was almost overdone) but she quickly and believably grows into a strong leader and devious politician, without ever forsaking her ideals.
Secondly, the world-building is excellent. Bujold sketches a detailed and believable picture of a feudal country, threatened both by strife among its noble house and invasions from outside. The religion of Chalion–which worships five gods, some of whom are characters in the story–is one of the more convincing I’ve seen in a while, with both a healthy level of folk devotion and a coherent philosophical side. And while there’s not a lot of magic in the story, what there is has rules and sticks to them.
Thirdly, the book has a refreshing level of . . . I guess you could call it idealism, without ever lapsing into sugar-coated happiness. As I was reading it, I kept being reminded of A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. Both are concerned with political machinations and civil war in a country closely based on an actual historical millieu (War of the Roses England for Thrones, Medieval Spain for Chalion). Both present a gritty and sometimes grim picture of their worlds; both show the brutality of war, the degredation of prisoners, and the particular cruelties to which women can be subject in a patrilineal monarchy. And yet Bujold, far more strongly than Martin, holds out hope that honor is not always in vain; that even in the most apalling conditions, characters can still practice virtue and it will matter. As Cazaril says at one point: “Events may be horrible or inescapable. Men always have a choice–if not whether, then how, they may endure.”
As for flaws, the only one I can really think of is Cazaril’s love interest, who never emerged as a particularly memorable personality, making the romance less involving than it could have been. On the other hand, this is primarily an adventure story, not a romance–and I was sufficiently invested in Cazaril (and in seeing him get some crumb of happiness) that he could have fallen in love with a stone statue and I would still have been cheering him on.
Morally, the book is . . . difficult to evaluate. There are a lot of good qualities to it: the standard fantasy defense of honor and justice, along with the sense of hope I mentioned earlier. But as I also mentioned, the characters worship five gods who are real and at work within the world of the story, and that’s where it gets complex. Bujold is obviously using her imaginary world to explore real issues of providence, miracles, and even the problem of evil, but since she’s doing it with with five gods, not everything can be parsed into real-world terms.
For instance, one of the primary rules of her world is that the gods cannot directly interact with the material world; they can only act (and work miracles) through the willing cooperation of human beings. So she says some things any Christian would enthusiastically affirm about submission to the divine will, and the way in which divine aid often comes by means of another person, and how you cannot force a miracle. Yet the constraints she places on her gods are obviously ones that a Christian cannot affirm about the real God–and yet, she’s not saying them about Him, but about her fictional gods.
Basically: all metaphors break down eventually, this one perhaps sooner than others. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting exploration of ideas, even if both conclusions and premises are not always entirely consonant with Christianity.
(There’s also the fact that one of the gods is patron of–among other things–homosexuality, and you meet one of his devotees at one point. This is not as dirty as it sounds, and it’s not a major theme of the book, either.)
As far as content goes, Bujold never gets terribly graphic, but there are some harrowing accounts of war-crimes and the mistreatment of slaves, as well as discussions of sex (usually in the context of getting an heir).