Saturday, November 1, 2014

Review: "The Curse of Chalion" by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is the least artistically
insulting cover I can find.
Facebook visitors: this is the book I was yelling about last month.

I almost didn't bother with this book because the cover was uninspired and the title was insipid. (Bujold has a problem with lackluster titles, though all the books of hers I have read were more than competent.) Dear reader, do yourself a favor and take this book on faith, as I did. I hadn't read the synopsis. I didn't know what I was getting into. All I had was the recommendation of a few friends I trusted.

By the fifth page of The Curse of Chalion, I had almost given up.

By page 24, I was head-over-heels in love with the story and making little screeching noises of glee.

With that out of the way, let me proceed with the usual synopsis + grump.


When Cazaril is freed from the slave galleys of his enemies, the old soldier wants nothing more than to rest, far from war and the political machinations that betrayed him.

Homeless, friendless, and broken, he throws himself on the mercy of the old Provincara in whose house he served as a young man. By the grace of the gods, the Provincara has a place for him. Her granddaughter stands in line for the throne of Chalion--and will need every advantage she can get to survive the treacherous Chalionese court, which drove her own royal mother mad. Cazaril's varied and ugly experiences as soldier, diplomat, spy, and prisoner makes him an ideal tutor, if not an eager one.

As Iselle's tutor, Cazaril means to teach her to avoid the snares that ruined her predecessors. He believes that Iselle has the chance to turn the bizarre chain of bad luck which has plagued the royalty of Chalion for generations. But the responsibility comes with risks. Protecting Iselle means following her to the court, where certain old friends are less than pleased to find Cazaril back from the galleys, living proof of their treachery.

  5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

 I love every character in this book, every plot twist, every confrontation, every ringing line. For all that The Curse of Chalion is a hefty 450 pages, I would have enjoyed it were it twice that length. The book is packed with story, wasting neither the reader's time nor their heart.

High praise? Sound promising? It gets better. At a certain point, when I sensed the story wrapping up, I felt sad that it was coming to an end.  Then it occurred to me that the weight of the book in my right hand was awful heavy from the number of pages I had left to turn. The story wasn't wrapping up, it was just then coming to a boil. 

I kept expecting Cazaril to surrender the story to someone younger and more traditionally heroic, but nope--that beat-up, ragged old survivor is our leading man. That alone sets Chalion apart from many of its fantasy peers. Soon I couldn't get enough of this tired, broken hero, who can survive years of torturous slavery but comes undone at unexpected kindnesses. I adored Iselle, whose initial foolishness comes from lack of information rather than lack of intelligence, who means to right all the wrongs and conquer all her enemies and gallop all the time. Watching this child grow into a queen is a magnificent journey.
Iselle stopped and stared out the window embrasure where she had sat to endure Dondo's hideous wooing. Her eyes narrowed. At last she said decisively, "I must try. I cannot, will not, leave my fate to drift downstream to another disastrous falls and make no push to steer it. I will petition my royal brother, and at once."

She wheeled for the door and beckoned sharply, like a general urging on his troops. "Betriz, Cazaril, attend upon me!"
Author Lois McMaster Bujold builds tension without resorting to gimmicks or hand-wringing. Her slyly comedic narrative asides are perfectly timed to keep me smiling as I read, while the dialogue between the characters crackles. I've kept certain lines as well as certain scenes locked in my head for weeks, waiting for the time to post this review.

Bujold makes good decisions as to the fates of her characters and the directions the story should take--not predictable ones, but not cheap surprises, either. She pulls off a tricky May-December romance with aplomb, and juggles deep questions of destiny versus free will with masterful insight. I am deeply grateful that she chose one potential recurring villain over another, having made her point regarding the latter's general distastefulness without beating the reader over the head with it for another two hundred pages. (You'll see what I mean when you read it.)

Even the practice of death magic--which is, by the by, the point at which I nearly put the book down for good--became a really clever and engaging concept. I've mentioned before that I don't much care for magic in my fantasy, strange as that may sound for someone with more reviews in the "fantasy" genre than any other. When death magic entered the scene on page five, I thought I was in for a dreary and cheap sort of novel. The fact that death magic, by its nature, requires the life of the would-be assassin as well as that of the victim made it only a little better. Fair's fair and all.

What makes the practice of magic in Chalion different and delightful to me is the presence of the land's very real gods. Rather than being a ritual with predictable results--like baking a pie, only with more death!--magic is a prayer, the most desperate yearning of the heart and soul toward a single purpose. The magic, if it occurs, would be more properly termed a miracle.

Death magic is, then, a "miracle of justice" (to quote one of the books' characters.) If a person believes that another person must be removed from the world, for the good of the world, so strongly that they are willing to give their own life to ensure it--the gods might just agree, and accept the offer:
"Murder? There was no murder." 
"Excuse me, the man is dead, by death magic, which is a capital crime." 
"Oh. Yes, I see. The ignorant are full of errors about death magic, well, even the name is wrong. It's a nice theological point, d'you see. Attempting death magic is a crime of intent, of conspiracy. Successful death magic is not death magic at all, but a miracle of justice, and cannot be a crime, because it is the hand of the god that carries of the victim--victims--I mean, it's not as if the king can send his officers to arrest a god, eh?"
Most of the book is not terribly mystical. Bujold uses the supernatural sparingly and to great effect. Her worldbuilding for the intricacies of a fantastical religion, and the myriad of ways in which characters relate to their faith or lack thereof, is several steps above the usual mechanical approach taken by other writers.

The heart of the story, though, is about justice, faith, and sacrifice. Free will and one's right to choose to step off of a destined path, contrasted with the cost of preserving one's own will to the exclusion of all else. It's about a number of people stepping up to the plate, metaphorically speaking, and how living under a curse, when one might drop dead at any moment, is in the end no different from an ordinary life, where accidents happen all the time. It's a story about not denying the presence of your fear, but not letting it immobilize you, either.

"Events may be horrible or inescapable. Men have always a choice--if not whether, then how, they may endure."
I learned after finishing the book (for a second time) that Bujold drew much of the plot--at least where it concerns the succession of Chalion's throne and Iselle's marriage--from the real-life unification of Spain through the union of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille. I can't say much more than that without wrecking some lovely plot twists, but I appreciate the historical nod. It also helped me understand the naming patterns and some of the language--Chalion is Bujold's fantastical medieval Spain.

The Curse of Chalion won the 2002 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and for good cause. I should probably just read my way down the Mythopoeic Award list sometime.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass?
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: graphic violence, torture, mention of rape and of homophobic violence, disturbing imagery


  1. Is it as soul-crushingly depressing as her other fantasy novels? Er...perhaps I should first ask if you've A) read her other fantasy novels and B) found them to be soul-crushingly depressing?

    1. I would say no!
      But let me qualify-- I haven't read her other fantasy novels. I've read the sci-fi duo "Shards of Honor" and "Barrayar," and now "Paladin of Souls," which is the (fantasy) sequel to this book. So I can't speak as to comparisons.
      I didn't find this book to be soul-crushingly depressing. To me, though it went through some hard places and tight spots plotwise, the emotional arc was upwards. I felt SO GOOD reading this book.
      If there are specific subjects that make something especially soul-crushing to you, I can let you know more details.

    2. I wish I could be specific. I've read most of her sci-fi and some of her other fantasy books. While her sci-fi sometimes gets too dark and horrible for me, it still leans pretty strongly optimistic. I didn't feel that way about her fantasy, at least the ones I have read. Those seemed to lean pretty strongly depressing. (But I don't know that other people feel that way. I am a very wussy reader and easily depressed by fiction.)