The Curse of Chalion

by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cover image

Series: Chalion #1
Publisher: HarperTorch
Copyright: August 2001
Printing: October 2002
ISBN: 0-380-81860-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 502

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I started on Bujold's famous Miles Vorkosigan series some time back, but didn't care for the first two books and never got around to reading more. I'd heard good things about her new fantasy series, though, and the second book won the Hugo last year, so I decided to give it a try.

The part I disliked the most about Shards of Honor and Barrayar, the oddly flippant tone that skimmed over the surfaces of character feelings without letting the reader feel what's going on, is completely missing from The Curse of Chalion. In fact, except for a few moments, I wouldn't have guessed it was written by the same author. The narrative faces squarely the deep feelings of the characters, lets them come out clearly on the page, and doesn't distract the reader with the tone. This is a substantial improvement; Bujold has become a much better writer.

Possibly related to this change, though, is one of the drawbacks of this book. It has a curious lack of style. Bujold tells the story well, but the prose seems very functional and undistinguished, relating events often without providing a distinct voice. This isn't truly a flaw so much as a missed opportunity, but I think it contributed to my boredom through the first 180 pages. While Bujold is setting up the story and moving the characters into place, very little is going on, and without a strong style, the reader has little to engage with.

Hang in there through the first 200 pages before deciding whether you like the book, though, since at that point the plot really starts. I like a good story of religion in an epic fantasy (which The Curse of Chalion definitely is, from the hero's journey to the cursed land ruled by the wrong king), and Bujold's apparently simple five-deity mythology becomes something fascinating. What starts off as a story about the intrigues of political power in a monarchy becomes a story about people's relationship with their gods and the partnerships between gods and men in creating the events of the world. Gods in the world of Chalion don't come with absolute powers or simple answers yet still manage to be beyond human ken, a delicate balancing act that Bujold handles well.

The plain narrative style does fit the title character, even if I found it boring. Cazaril keeps his opinions to himself, cares about facts and clear observation, and waits before deciding how to act. Remarkably among novels, Bujold is disciplined and consistent about point of view, telling the entire story in tight third person with Cazaril as the viewpoint character. This is a sign of a writer with a strong grasp of craft; it's easier to tell a story while switching between a few characters (and even easier to fall into sloppily switching viewpoints in the middle of scenes), particularly when writing in third person. Bujold's consistency provides some of the reader connection of a first person perspective while letting the narrator disappear into the story, and I didn't even notice her consistency until I was thrown by a scene where I didn't think Cazaril was present (I had just misread a sentence).

This is not a book that blows away the reader with the quality of its writing, but under the surface is solid craft and a story that becomes quite interesting once it gets going. Bujold's mythology avoids the excessive complexity of a lot of epic fantasy and is more interesting because of it. Cazaril tackles spiritual issues that go beyond a simple adventure story — not that far beyond, but enough to make his hopes and fears more real for me. Recommended, and don't give up on it too soon.

Followed by Paladin of Souls.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-05-01

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