The Curse of Chalion is a fantasy novel. There’s no doubt about that; it takes place in an imaginary world, with a Medieval-like setting, with lands like kingdoms that all have their own strict codes of conduct. What sets it above and beyond most other fantasy novels is Lois McMaster Bujold’s development of a deep and complex world, in which one person struggles to understand life and the world around him, rather than just having an all-consuming goal to achieve.
We start out following Cazaril, a broken man who seeks the protection of royalty he once served. His fortunes are good, and he is appointed educator and secretary to Iselle, the royesse (another word for princess), and her courtesan, Betriz. From this position, he develops good relationships with the girls and comes to case greatly for them. He eventually is obliged to accompany his charges to Cardegoss, the capital city of their land, Chalion.
The trip to Cardegoss would be no problem if it weren’t for the fact that powerful men there had betrayed and attempted to kill Cazaril. We spend most of the rest of the first half of the book watching the back-and-forth political movements of two sides: one made up of Cazaril, the girls, and a couple of his friends; and the other composed of the dy Jironal brothers and those they could buy. Both sides seek to secure the favor of the roya (king) Orico, the royesse’s half-brother.
The second half of the book, however, is where things get quite more interesting. Cazaril attempts a desperate religious rite to prevent on of the dy Jironal brothers from marrying Iselle, and, in so doing, turns himself into … well, a living minor saint. And sainthood ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Honestly, the most wonderful part of The Curse of Chalion is Bujold’s use of fantasy tropes to create something new and refreshing. Cazaril experiences some sword fights and was a soldier, sure. But there’s never an open battle, he’s not really an amazing fighter, and the most interesting jostling takes place in the royal court. There’s romance, for sure. But Cazaril isn’t in love with the royesse. He loves her courtesan. There’s a different type of religion, but it doesn’t sit on the sidelines. It’s a major focus of the book, drives the plot forward, and is the main catalyst for Cazaril’s journey of personal growth.
I found Bujold’s writing style remarkably clean for a fantasy writer. She’s descriptive without being flowery. She’s not crass, by any means, but she doesn’t shy away from words that other fantasy writers tend to shy away from, as if their audiences are made up entirely of eighty-year-old women. I always found this odd; isn’t the typical reader of fantasy basically a more-literate version of a WoW player? In other words, probably somewhere between fifteen and forty years old, and split evenly between the sexes? Almost everyone in that demographic has heard just about every crass word, and they can take a couple more if they’re warranted. So I appreciate the clear and realistic writing style Bujold employs.
Fantasy novels are easy to find. Fantastic fantasy novels are a rare breed, to which The Curse of Chalion certainly belongs.