The Curse of Chalion
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Eos, 2001, ISBN 0-380-97901-2
This book would be a stand-ou t among pseudo-mediaeval fantasy novels if only for the fact that it has a believable and well-thought-out religion that actually matters, not only to the plot, but to the characters as well. This is not a fantasy where no one but the gullible believes in the gods, and the clergy are all either dupes or villains. (That the gods are, in the context of the novel, quite real, and take a meaningful role in the personal and especially the political conflicts, has its effect here.) The rest of the background is also fairly well thought out, and while what we see is the portion of the world that the characters, limited to the speed of foot and horse and sailing ship, can reach, it has the feel of extending well beyond that.
Chalion is a kingdom at about a 15th century level of technology, with some resemblances in its culture and situation to Spain of about that time–dash and also, of course, a great many differences. The Spanish monarchy, for instance, was probably not actually under a curse, however tempting an explanation that may seem.
The Castillar Lupe dy Cazaril walks home to Chalion after enduring many months of captivity as a galley slave aboard an enemy ship, and months of illness in a neighboring kingdom after being rescued. Still far too weak to do most of the things he did before his captivity, he is appointed secretary and tutor to the Royesse Iselle, half-sister of the Roya of Chalion. His life at court is enlivened by the fact that the enemies whose treachery let to his being sold rather than ransomed have become the Roya’s most powerful advisors, in some ways more powerful than the roya himself.
Gradually he discovers that the royal family is under a curse, a curse that is slowly destroying the family and the kingdom. Desperate circumstances lead to equally desperate measures, and Cazaril learns more about Chalion’s history, the gods, and what passes for domestic and international politics in a 15th century setting than he ever wanted to know.
Very much worth reading, even if there is one glaring coincidence buried in the plot.
Other reviews of this book: Review by Mark L. Olson