Desert Isle Keeper
The Curse of Chalion
Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most acclaimed authors in modern science fiction, having won numerous Hugo and Nebula awards for her Vorkosigan series. In The Curse of Chalion, she moves her trademark adventure and great characterization away from space and into an intricate fantasy world.
When we meet Lupe dy Cazaril, he is impoverished, nearly-crippled, emotionally broken, and mistaken for a beggar. Several years before, during a disastrous military campaign, he was betrayed by his commander and sold into slavery. After escape and a nervous breakdown, Cazaril has made his way on foot to the city of Valenda in the kingdom of Chalion, where he had spent a few happy years during his childhood. He hopes to beg work of the local noblewoman. The old woman remembers him and surprises him by making him the tutor-secretary to her teenaged granddaughter, Iselle. The job is one bound to shake Cazaril out of his self-pity: Iselle is not just any girl, but the younger half-sister of the king, a royal princess who will one day be expected to hold her own in matters of state.
Cazaril sets to work educating Iselle, a headstrong, idealistic, and intelligent young woman whose zeal for justice must be tempered with diplomacy and balance. Soon both Iselle and Cazaril are in grave danger. Iselle is commanded to join her royal brother in the capital city, and Cazaril reluctantly accompanies her. The move brings Cazaril to the notice of the enemy who betrayed him; it brings Iselle to the notice of an unscrupulous, cruel nobleman, Dondo dy Jironal, who hopes to cement his undue influence over the king by marrying the princess, whether she likes it or not.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this novel is the detailed religion the author has created. The inhabitants of Chalion worship the virginal Daughter of the spring, fertile Mother of summer, warlike Son of autumn, and wise Father of winter. In addition, there is an intriguing fifth god: the Bastard, patron of executioners and carrion beasts, whose season is Leap Day. He is the god, effectively, of February 29. This pantheon is not mere window dressing – its importance infuses the details of daily life and, increasingly, drives the plot. By the time we reach the novel’s beautiful, unexpected climax, we understand that the affairs of the gods have always been what this book is about.
Since this is All About Romance, I must mention that the novel contains a love story. It is far from the focus of the book, but it is poignant and lovely nonetheless. As Cazaril’s life grows more and more precarious, his attachment grows – not, refreshingly, for his student Iselle, but for Iselle’s sensible lady-in-waiting, Betriz. Bujold does a good job of showing a relationship that seems well and truly doomed, and then rescuing it at the last minute with a happy ending.
The Curse of Chalion is satisfying on a number of levels. The plot is exciting and complex, and the characters are sympathetic, original, and interesting. They live in a fully-realized fantasy universe, reminiscent of Renaissance Europe but with rules all its own. It’s a rich novel, filled with lots of unexpected nuances and layers of detail. I know that I will want to read it again soon to absorb them all. I give it my strongest recommendation.