The Curse of Chalion (2001) by Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time, though the first half is stronger than the second. The novel closely follows its single point-of-view character, the minor lord and battered veteran, Cazaril, as he navigates a cutthroat world of court politics, with some magical assistance. Returning from war and imprisonment as a galley slave, Cazaril wants nothing more than a modest sinecure where he can live out his life in obscurity. But this is not to be, as he soon finds himself employed as a tutor for the Royesse (Princess) Iselle, who stands only a couple of relations away from inheriting the kingdom. When Iselle is summoned to court, Cazaril finds himself enmeshed in court intrigue made more malign by a curse that taints Iselle’s royal family. He must use all his wits and courage to help steer Iselle and the kingdom to safety.
This book has two signal strengths:
1) Cazaril: he is a richly drawn, extremely likable character who successfully combines a veritable laundry list of virtues and talents with a convincingly vulnerable humanity, including physical frailty and an endearing if perhaps excessive humility. (He is the only character I recall reading for whom being badly scarred means ongoing physical incapacity and not just an exciting plot point.) His vulnerability, of course, intensifies the impact of his courage and sacrifices. It is also refreshing to see a hero whose great talents include conflict avoidance and downplaying his own importance.
2) Politics: Bujold pulls off a feat of plot development of which I am in awe: she manages to present Cazaril as an astute, cautious politician and still inexorably suffocate him in his adversaries’ machinations. He makes very few mistakes, but he is not perfect and his power is limited, and he simply cannot counter all the moves in the great game of chess that seeks to manipulate Iselle and destroy Cazaril along the way.
Until he does. Midway through the book, Cazaril effectively obliterates the main opposition. He does this at great personal cost, with a sacrifice that, narratively speaking, fully earns his victory. And he continues to suffer the ramifications of his choice for most of the rest of the book. Still, it presently becomes clear that the political sphere has grown much less threatening, and thus, a main tension—and the most tightly written segment of the story—is effectively over (or on its downhill slide) from about halfway through the book. This loss of momentum is a bit of a letdown.
It also becomes clear that Cazaril, brilliant character though he is, is mostly static. We meet him as a weathered, mature adult of thirty-five, and his development mainly consists of revealing his many facets rather than transforming them. In the first half of the book, this strategy works immensely well, as we see Cazaril morph from vagabond to quiet tutor to political player to mystical “saint.” But in the second half of the book, he remains mostly political player and mystical saint, and I begin to feel like I’m seeing the same moves over and over.
Thus, the second half of the book, while still very ably written, lacks the impact of the first. The challenges are not as gripping (though Cazaril’s predicament is inventive and awful), and the protagonist becomes something of an onion that’s no longer being peeled.
A digression on romance:
One of the strengths of this book is that its romance plot is relatively minor. But it’s there, and on the whole, I consider it a (mild) weakness.
I have a personal theory about romantic love stories—take it for what it’s worth. I see two main strategies for writing a romantic/marital pairing well. 1) They’re soul mates: generate two characters who are both well developed individuals with rough parity in the depth with which they’re drawn, who spark with each other in a natural, human way and can, thus, plausibly be sold as soul mates. A standard example of this type is Jane Eyre.
2) Don’t try to make them soul mates: explore all those other dimensions in human relations that generate partial fits, compromises, mismatches, miserable matches, workable friendliness, and so on. This approach can be done well without near parity in the development of the principals. An example of this I rather like (Game of Thrones books spoiler) is Tyrion and Sansa, two people thrust into an arranged marriage, trying to make the best of it.
The Curse of Chalion does neither of these. Cazaril and his love interest have nothing remotely resembling parity in character depth. She’s a good character; she’s just not one-tenth as fleshed out as he is. And while it’s clear why they like each other, it’s not clear why they’d spark as soul mates (perhaps largely because she’s so little developed). Now, they’d be a very apt couple for option 2: a good, decent, mostly happy marriage between two people who are reasonably good together. But option 2 requires some awareness that this is not the “soul mate” plot, and I’m not sure I see this awareness. Nothing in their relationship is questioned; nothing is explored as unideal. The result is a “pretty good fit” romance that seems sold to us as a “soul mates” romance, and the result is unsatisfying, simply because a book this good deserves better.
It starts as one of the best fantasies I’ve ever read and ends competently told. As a matter of personal taste, I disliked the Victorian-level coincidence that figures in the second half. However, others may feel it fits well with the theme of the gods’ action in the world. The political machinations are very well constructed.
Cazaril is fantastic, though mostly static. Several other major characters are quite well drawn, and no one is drawn poorly. The strong single-protagonist focus robs Cazaril of the opportunity to get deep development in juxtaposition with an equally interesting character. (A couple of characters could have fit this role, but they get relatively little page time.) The romance plot suffers from this in particular.
In general, the women are strong and admirable in a fashion plausible within a fairly rigid patriarchy, and misogyny in their world is explicitly and well addressed. However, I find the two principal female characters Victorian (that’s twice I’ve used the word in this review!) in the sense that they are effectively perfect. Their strengths are pitched more toward political intelligence and courageous action than innocence and compassion, but I remain troubled by the fact that they have no real flaws. They can be a little overly exuberant and, especially early on, make some political mistakes, but this is just youth. Psychologically, they seem to come from nowhere, to have passed through the deaths of parents, the stresses of courtly life, and so on without a single real scar. And it bothers me that this substantial psychological perfection seems a prerequisite to their being acceptable as admirable, attractive female characters.
All in all:
Somehow I managed to get through life up to now without reading Bujold. Now I understand why she’s considered a giant of science fiction and fantasy. At its best, this novel is a tour de force of both plotting and characterization. At its worst, it remains expert in the craft of storytelling. It’s a bit unfortunate, however, that the most compelling parts come first, leaving the second half to suffer by comparison.
I highly recommend this book to all fantasy fans. I should note, too, that its sequel is the Hugo award winning Paladin of Souls.