A DARK CLOUD HANGS OVER THE HOUSE OF CHALION
A RELUCTANT HERO IS THRUST INTO THE ROLE OF SAVIOUR, TO PROTECT THE ROYAL HEIR TO THE THRONE FROM A SINISTER CURSE
The Curse Of Chalion
(World Of The Five Gods, Book 1)
Lois McMaster Bujold
Genre: High Fantasy
Format: Paperback, 448 Pages
Date: 11th April 2006 (First Published 2000)
Lois McMaster Bujold is an author whose name is, perhaps, synonymous with science fiction. However, no reader could have any genuine concerns when a writer of her calibre chooses to step somewhat out of her comfort zone to write a high fantasy novel. Bujold is, after all, one of the most acclaimed and decorated genre authors ever, with four Hugo Awards for best novel to her name; equalling Robert Heinlein’s record. That being the case, it should come as no surprise to learn that The Curse Of Chalion is a splendid novel, coming as it does, from a writer with such a pedigree.
There are numerous examples of novels with intriguing premises that fall down, either on account of poor execution, or just plain weak writing. Rest assured, The Curse Of Chalion is not one of those books. Bujold’s capabilities as a writer ensure that not only does the story hold together from beginning to end, her story is also riveting, thanks in no small part to her exceptional prose; which is all the more impressive given that the book is by no means a fast paced, action packed swashbuckler, though it does, somehow, possess the page turning quality that might be expected of a novel that is those things. Undoubtedly, this is the result of Bujold being one of those rare writers who can make the most mundane of situations insanely engrossing, when printed on a page.
The Curse Of Chalion is the story of a damaged man who returns home to Chalion seeking employment in the household of the noble family whom he served in his youth, hoping to resume a low-key life in order to avoid the attention of the lord who betrayed him into a life of brutal slavery at the conclusion of a costly, disastrous war. But those hopes for a quiet life are quickly dashed when his benefactor employs him to be the secretary-tutor to one of the young potential heirs to the throne of Chalion: A position that, much to his astonishment, unwittingly puts him front and centre of a quest to break a dark curse that plagues the royal family of Chalion.
Bujold’s tale is genuinely so good it’s hard to find fault with it; and not just because her writing is so incredibly strong. Some of the credit must also go to the comprehensiveness and attention to detail in her world building. One notable example of this being theology, which is a prominent component of the story. She goes to the trouble of creating a complete belief system, including its rituals, holy days and the like. It is readily apparent that a great deal of time and effort was expended on developing the various facets of the story’s setting.
As an observation, while reading the book it often felt as though Bujold’s fictional world, its peoples, cultures and politics, owes more than a little to the history of the Iberian Peninsula; which in turn brought to mind Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel, The Lions Of Al-Rassan. Subsequetly, a little investigation revealed that the geography of the setting was indeed inspired by the aforementioned location during the fifteenth century. And it also appears to be the case that a couple of prominent characters in the story are based upon historical persons.
The Curse Of Chalion’s virtues do not end with the author’s compelling premise, great writing and thorough world building. In addition to these, Bujold’s characterisation is top-notch, which is to be expected as she invariably favours character driven narratives, and there are many memorable, intriguing characters thrown into the mix; most notably Lupe dy Cazaril, the book’s protagonist.
Cazaril is by no means the archetypal hero commonly found in fantasy literature. He is not the all-action, one man army who rushes headlong into danger. In fact, he goes out of his way to avoid needless confrontation or risk putting himself in harms way. Yet he never shies away from these things when he deems it necessary, nor is his willingness to sacrifice himself on behalf of those he feels a sense of duty towards, ever in question. It is also noteworthy that as a character, Cazaril has a rather tragic backstory that really lends itself to a revenge tale. But at no stage during proceedings are his motivation and actions tainted or compromised by a desire for personal vengeance.
The book is blessed with several other compelling characters, but there are two who really stand out along with Cazaril: the Royesse, Iselle dy Chalion, the teenage heiress to the throne of Chalion; and her handmaiden, Lady Betriz dy Ferrej. Iselle in particular is a fantastic character. Though she is royalty, her youth and gender still count against her in the world depicted, yet she never accepts or allows these constraints to be a disadvantage. She is resolutely headstrong, forthright and determined, but above all else, she is a tremendously courageous young woman. The dynamic she shares with Betriz and Cazaril is unquestionably one of the highlights of the story.
When reading such an accomplished work of fiction, the temptation to actively search for flaws can be hard to resist. And while flaws were sought, by yours truly, no legitimate ones could be found. Even the predictably happy ending (an occasional bugbear of mine) was easy to forgive, because, frankly, it was more than earned; which isn’t always the case. It really is hard to find fault with such a great story that was rightly nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award For Best Novel; losing out to Neil Gaiman’s multi-award winning novel, American Gods. But having read the latter twice,now, it’s hard not to feel that Bujold was robbed. While The Curse Of Chalion may not be able to lay claim to possessing the originality of the eventual winner, it’s certainly the more compelling read of the two.
If you’ve not yet read The Curse Of Chalion, you are urged to rectify that as soon as possible. It is a truly engrossing story of exceptional courage and sacrifice in the face of grave odds, with an ending to warm even the coldest of hearts. And though not really relevant, it’s pleasing to say the follow up novel, Paladin Of Souls, did win the Hugo Award For Best Novel, as well as the Nebula Award.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.