Review: The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold is best known for her Vorkosigan series, for which she has won multiple Hugo Awards. The Curse of Chalion, her most recent book, is definitely not a Vorkosigan book. For one thing, it's fantasy (set in a world unrelated to her prior fantasy novel, The Spirit Ring, and loosely based on a historical situation from our world; however, since it works perfectly well if you don't know that, and since it might be a spoiler to give more details, I won't). For another, the point-of-view character is quite different from Miles, the protagonist of most of Bujold's books: Cazaril is the older, quietly competent, rather weary mentor figure, trying desparately (and exasperatedly) to teach and protect his brilliant, headstrong protegée; in other words, he's not Miles, he's Simon Illyan.

Okay, he's not really Simon. But I was quite struck, re-reading the book this time, at what a different point in life Cazaril is at, compared to Miles. (Though he does say a few jarringly Milesian things early on.) When the book opens, the Castillar Lupe dy Cazaril is seeking employment from the castle where he served in his youth, while he recovers from almost two years as a galley slave after a betrayal by a powerful Chalionese family:

"Come, come, Castillar, you quite daunt me with your offer of service. I'm not sure poor Valenda has posts enough to occupy you. You've been a courtier—a captain—a castle warder—a courier—"

"I haven't been a courtier since before Roya Ias died, my lady. And as a captain . . . I helped lose the battle of Dalus." And rotted for nearly a year in the dungeons of the royacy of Brajar, thereafter. "As a castle warder, well, we lost the siege. And as a courier, I was nearly hanged as a spy. Twice." He brooded. And three times put to the torture in violation of parley. "Now . . . now, well, I know how to row boats. And five ways of preparing a dish of rats."

Cazaril is given the post of secretary-tutor to the Royesse Iselle, second in line to the throne of Chalion. Which makes her, as Iselle's formidable grandmother correctly notes, just another castle under siege. The resemblance becomes quite obvious when Iselle and her brother, the heir, are summoned to court. Among the intrigues and dangers there, Cazaril discovers the curse of the title, and what's worse, finds that it's his job to fix it.

Why is it his job? The short answer: theology. (The long answer takes most of the book.) Like the inventions in Bujold's science fiction novels, the implications of Chalion's religion for society—and, accordingly, for the characters and the plot—are thoroughly worked out, but there's no one invention in the Vorkosigan universe that's as central as the religion is here. There are two key features: The gods are not omnipotent; besides some influencing of animals, the only way they can enter the world is if someone freely gives their will over to the gods. A god, usually; there are five, one for each season (Father of Winter, Daughter of Spring, Mother of Summer, and Son of Autumn), plus the Bastard, god of balance and of all things out of season.

I really enjoy the way religion is portrayed in this book; I like the way its effect on the details of daily life have been thought through, including what being a saint might actually be like, and I also find the religion itself quite appealing. The problem, if you consider it a problem, is that theology ends up tying the plot into a very neat circle—too neat from some people, and I confess it bothered me somewhat as well, though I can see how it follows from the world's internal logic. If you're the kind of person that this sort of thing really bothers, don't read Chalion. Otherwise, I strongly recommend it.

%T   The Curse of Chalion
%A   Bujold, Lois McMaster
%C   New York
%D   2001
%G   0-380-97901-2
%I   EOS
%O   hardcover
%P   442pp

Copyright Apr. 18, 2002 by Kate Nepveu.

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