The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. ★★★1/2
The Curse of Chalion is a high fantasy novel that stands on its own, although I’m told that there are sequels. The book opens with Cazaril, still recuperating from being enslaved upon a galley ship, returning to the noble household where he once served as a page. There he is assigned as secretary-tutor to the sister of the heir to the throne. The assignment will carry him into the capital and the midst of political intrigue and a deadly curse.
I know a lot of people who really love The Curse of Chalion, but it didn’t have quite the same effect on me. It’s not that I disliked it or regret reading it. It’s just that it’s not a book I’d consider ever reading again or worth keeping my copy of. I’m having a lot of difficulty coming up with why this is, but I think it’s mainly a matter of personal preference. The Curse of Chalion is inspired by/based on the Iberian Peninsula during the 1400s, and it does have the taste of historical fiction about it (perhaps fans of Guy Gavriel Kay would like this one). There are fantasy elements, such as the curse, but the world in general feels more historical.
My favorite aspect of the book was the source of the fantastical – the fictional religion. The culture Cazaril lives in worships five gods, the Father, the Mother, the Daughter, the Son, and the Bastard. Everything magical relates to these deities and the worship of them. At the very opening of the book, for instance, Cazaril finds the body of a man killed using death magic, which is essentially a prayer to the Bastard. Despite this early introduction, the magical aspect doesn’t really come into play until about two hundred pages in. Not so coincidentally, that’s the same point where the previously slow pacing starts to pick up.
I think the characterization of the lead, Cazaril, was very well done. He feels older and more tired than the typical fantasy hero, but he’s still devoted to his cause. Royesse Iselle was also particularly well drawn, a strong willed young woman beginning on the path to becoming a savvy politician. A few of the secondary characters such as Betriz could have used a bit more characterization. This is especially true when it comes to the villains, as Dondo felt like the stereotypical rapey bad guy. On the bright side, there’s a number of important female characters who are generally well written, and there’s a plot relevant gay character who doesn’t die.
I feel like people who like A Song of Ice and Fire might stand a chance of liking The Curse of Chalion, due to the low magic setting and political story line. The Curse of Chalion isn’t what I would term grimdark though, despite the abundant use of rape and brutality in character backstories. As I mentioned before, fans of Guy Gavriel Kay might also enjoy this novel. Or, if you haven’t read much fantasy but like historical fiction, this could be a good crossover for you.