Title: The Curse of Chalion
Author: Louise McMaster Bujold
Date Started: August 10, 2015 Date Finished: August 23, 2015
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★1/2
Every book has a story: This isn’t the usual situation where I heard about this book long ago, or silently pined after it, or am jumping on the newest fantastical thing. All I did was read this article on io9 and it led me into an internet freefall looking up everything about Louise McMaster Bujold, who I’d somehow never heard of… Of all her series, I was drawn to The Curse of Chalion‘s label of “romantic fantasy.” After the sweeping and violent epic of The Liar’s Key I was ready for something completely different, and after a few disappointing reading choices lately, was willing to go with something not even I had expected. When I couldn’t find The Curse of Chalion available at any of my local bookstores, I decided to do something radical for a relentless bookhoarder such as myself. I got a library card. This changes everything!
Cazaril heard the mounted horseman on the road before he saw them.
“Is this the road to Valenda?”
Cazaril, once a beloved servant and soldier of the kingdom of Chalion and its most powerful houses, is on the long journey home after several years as a slave on a ship. He has his suspicions of how he came to be abandoned to the Roknari slavers, with no ransom coming to claim him despite all his high connections, but after all his suffering, Cazaril just wants to return home to a simple life. He seeks a lowly position in the house where he’d once been employed as a courier when he was young, but when his aged former mistress lays eyes on him, she has a much higher summoning for him.
The Provincara has in her care her daughter, the widow of the last king, and her grandchildren, the princess and prince of the realm and siblings of the current King Orico. It happens that the young royals are in need of a tutor with deep knowledge of the kingdom of Chalion and its surrounding provinces, an understanding of martial command, and bred with noble manners. In a word, Cazaril. Quite unexpectedly, Cazaril finds himself serving as the personal secretary and tutor to the clever and sharp Iselle and her lady-in-waiting, Betriz.
Once Cazaril has found comfort and solace in his new life, everything is flipped on its side. The young royals are summoned to court by their brother the king and Cazaril comes face to face with those who designed his betrayal years ago. Once a soldier, once a keeper of the nobles’ intrigues as a young courier, Cazaril now has no desire for action or playing the game of court. But the gods have other plans for him, and eventually Cazaril’s hand is forced in a way that will change the whole dynasty of Chalion and cost Cazaril more than his life.
“So you’re saying that I could die at any moment?”
“Yes. And this is different from your life yesterday in what way?”
For all his traditionally heroic deeds in war and his role in noble secrets in his younger days, Cazaril is now foremost a sensitive and quiet man. Physical manifestations of romance in this romantic fantasy novel are rare treats, but Cazaril is a constant romantic in his ideals. I was quickly endeared to him–I cannot resist a man who locks himself in his room to cry. Iselle and her quick wit make for a great princess, especially between her prematurely aged brother Orico and rash young Teidez. The Chalion court is full of great characters, kind priests and conniving lords. I appreciate that there are many characters with good intentions and that there are friends to be found–not being able to trust anyone in the grimdark novels of late gets exhausting.
While political and spiritual stakes are high, the real sense of drama comes from how much the reader is brought to care about the characters. It’s not just because Iselle is a princess that I care about her marriage prospects; I wanted this kind and clever girl to have a husband worthy of her. Even ineffectual Orico stirs more sympathy than frustration. And sweet Cazaril, whose suffering appears doomed to be never-ending, and all borne with a grace and acceptance that make his violent prospects all the more tragic.
This is certainly not the last book by Louise McMaster Bujold I’ll be reading. I loved her story crafting and her writing, especially the dialogue. I don’t know that I’ll continue with the next Chalion book–at least, not anytime soon–but perhaps The Sharing Knife. It was so easy to love her world and the people in it, from their small personal hopes to their great sense of spirituality. I will never know how I got this far in my fantasy reading career without learning her name until now, but this has been corrected. I’ll take more romantic fantasy please! Is there an aisle for that at the library?