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The Curse of Chalion

Review by Mark L. Olson

The Curse of Chalion

by Lois McMaster Bujold

HarperCollins Eos, 2001, 442 pp, $25.00

Bujold has produced another gem! This is her second fantasy (after The Spirit Ring) and it’s quite excellent.

Chalion is a kingdom in an apparently fairly generic medieval fantasy world, but The Curse of Chalion is much more than a generic fantasy.

We meet the Castilar Cazaril as a broken man, just escaped from galley slavery and stumbling through a storm towards the one place that might give him a job. In the course of his journey, he hides out in an abandoned building and discovers a dead man who evidently died in the course of casting a death spell.

Cazaril eventually reaches the castle where he hopes to find succor and, by luck, gets the help he needs, being appointed tutor to a princess who lives there with her grandmother, Cazaril’s former employer’s widow.

The princess is in her late teens and active, but Cazaril is a success and is soon in her confidence. As Cazaril’s health has also improved, he soon comes to understand that there are deeper problems at hand: The Curse of Chalion which has plagued the royal family for two generations.

Unexpectedly, the princess, her brother the Crown Prince and their staffs (including Cazaril) are called back to the capitol where peril awaits them all. The King (the princess’ much older half-brother) is a weak, sick, man (The Curse?) and is in thrall to a powerful nobleman whose dissolute younger brother covets the princess.

What’s worse, this same nobleman betrayed Cazaril to the slavers and would not welcome Cazaril’s return.

Things rapidly get worse in every way!

I won’t try to detail the plot — it’s too well done to deserve to be spoiled, anyway — but I’ll say that it’s reasonably complicated and completely fair and very, very, well done.

This is a first-rate fantasy, a nice love story and a great book about some believably real people.

Besides the excellent characters and fine plot, Bujold does something else worthy of note: she manages to have a fantasy religion which is neither a copy of a real religion nor laughably naive. Their ceremonies and credo could be a real belief of real people, yet is nothing like any I have heard of. It is theologically sophisticated — it has a theology which is more complex than Bullfinch’s Mythology.

The people of Chalion have gods who — very occasionally — manifest in their world. These gods are numinous and mysterious and quite believable. Many of the characters in the book have encounters and none of them are left unchanged. Some of the best writing in the books tries and fails (and leaves you understanding why it had to fail) to show a human being impinged upon by the divine.

This is a first rate book, and great fun to read. It will surely get a Hugo nomination and if it weren’t that American Gods will also be on the ballot, would be a shoo-in.

Bujold has outdone herself.

Other reviews of this book: Review by Elisabeth Carey