The Curse of Chalion
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Review by EJ McClure
Eos (HarperCollins) Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0380979012
Date: August 2001 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The Curse of Chalion weaves a mesmerizing spell that highlights Lois McMaster Bujold's impressive versatility as an author not only of award-winning science fiction, but also of delightful fantasy.
Cazaril steps aside to let a band of cavalcade of armed riders pass, but to his dismay, they stop to ask him directions. To Cazaril's alarm, the young officer tips him not a copper vaida, but a gold royal by mistake. Knowing that the officer will send one of his servants back to reclaim the money, Cazaril takes shelter in an abandoned windmill, and finds himself in the company of a corpse. Though he recognizes the signs of death magic at the scene, Cazaril decides to do the right thing, and make a funeral pyre for the dead man.
That is Cazaril's particular curse: his stubborn insistence on doing the right thing. The decent, honorable thing. It has cost him battles, castles and a stint of slavery in the galleys that left him a broken man, aged beyond his years, wanting nothing more from life than a quiet end far from war and politics. Having no family, no fortune, and only dubious fame, Cazaril limps back to his childhood home. His welcome is cool; the guards at the gate take him for a ragged vagabond. Fortunately, Dowager Provincara recognizes him and takes him into her household, though not as a humble servant, as Cazaril had hoped. Instead, she charges Cazaril with the weighty responsibilities of secretary-tutor for Royesse Iselle, an intelligent, headstrong young woman whose impetuous nature challenges Cazaril's diminished reserves of strength and patience. But he finds he admires her, for her ready wit and quick grasp of statesmanship, and when she is recalled to court along with her brother Teidez, the heir-apparent of Chalion, Cazaril reluctantly takes charge of her escort. He is distracted from his gloomy forebodings by the knowledge that the winsome Lady Betriz, Iselle's companion and confidante, is also coming to court.
The court of Roya Orico, Teidez's uncle, is a perilous place. Cazaril's anonymity is soon compromised, as is the safety of his wards. In dismay he watches Teidez being seduced by flattery and the temptations of court life. Iselle is menaced by the political machinations of those who engineered Cazaril's downfall, and now seek to prevent her and her brother from gaining their inheritance. Cazaril must contend with duelists, assassins, black magic, treason, and a god or two in order to make good on his promise to the Dowager Provincara to protect her grandchildren.
Bujold's particular gift is to make extraordinary events and characters thoroughly believable. Step by step we follow Cazaril along the perilous path between damnation and sainthood as he tries to protect Iselle from an unwanted marriage to an unworthy man. Rarely has there been a saint more keenly aware of his own inner demons. Her conception of magic is likewise keenly perceptive. Magic in Chalion springs from the nature of the universe Bujold has created, rich in its own iconography, and internally consistent. It is a rare treat to read fantasy that is not derivative of the shopworn Greek and Celtic pantheons now stock-in-trade for role-playing games and TV shows.
Like Bujold's earlier work of fantasy, Spirit Ring, The Curse of Chalion takes place in a fantasy land owing more to Renaissance Europe than Medieval England. While Chalion deals with the fate of rulers and realms, its central character is the archetypical common man. One of Cazaril's most engaging traits is his humility, which stems from his focus not on his own heroism, but on his mission. As with all tragic heroes, the seeds of his own destruction lie within the most admirable qualities of his own nature: his stubborn insistence on being both honest and loyal. His willingness to engage the enemy. His devotion to duty. But The Curse of Chalion is saved from being bleak by Cazaril's wry wit, and Bujold's deft comic touch. Much of the humor develops from irony of situation, as characters play out their own self-serving roles, blind to the greater meaning of their own words. Subtle, richly-textured and provocative, The Curse of Chalion weaves a spell of delight.