Lord Cazaril has been in turn courier, courtier, castle-warder, and captain; now he is but a crippled ex-galley slave seeking nothing more than a menial job in the kitchens of the Dowager Provincara, the noble patroness of his youth. But Fortune’s wheel continues to turn for Cazaril, and he finds himself promoted immediately to the exalted and dangerous position of secretary-tutor to the Iselle, the beautiful, fiery sister of the heir to Chalion’s throne.
Amidst the decaying splendour and poisonous intrigue of Chalion’s ancient capital, Cardegoss, Cazaril is forced to encounter both old enemies and surprising allies, as he seeks to lift the curse of misfortune that clings to the royal family of Chalion, and to all who come too close to them…
Lois McMaster Bujold is probably best known for her sprawling space epic the Vorkosigan Saga, which she has been writing for the past three decades; in amongst this, critically feted and barely less well known, she’s also written a few fantasy novels, set in the world of Chalion. This isn’t the first of the Chalion novels I’ve read – I started with Penric’s Demon, a beautiful novella out from Subterranean – but it was the first written, so I’ve come to it by a slightly circuitous route.
There are a couple of big themes I want to pick out, but Curse of Chalion is fundamentally a novel, and so must be assessed on plot and character. And on those scores, Bujold is unsurprisingly solid. The plot relies on coincidence heavily for its conclusion but arguably earns that, by invoking the gods and destiny; throughout, it’s a driven, fast-paced thing, that hangs not on a succession of violences but far more heavily on communication, diplomacy, politics, and maneuvering and mutual respect, in a heartening, if sadly uncommon, turn. The plot is driven largely by men and women trying to do their best; there is a consistent message of humans trying to do their flawed best in face of a confusing world where that isn’t always clear. For a five hundred page novel there’s surprisingly little dead space; Bujold has a tendency to repetition to drive a philosophical point home, or to linger on a character’s struggles to make sure we know what’s going on, and there’s an extent to which the first hundred-odd pages are prologue to a story we could be dropped a little nearer the start of. Once it gets going, though, Bujold makes sure each obstacles leads neatly to the next, bigger, linked obstacle, drawing the reader through the rest of Curse of Chalion with a powerful confidence.
The characters are where Bujold’s strength as a writer really shines through, though; almost every one feels like an individual, with their own motives which, looked at through their lens, are positive. Cazaril, especially, has a brilliant sense of humour, which had me laughing out loud at some particularly droll moments; but Curse of Chalion is peppered with astute people whose intelligence isn’t all directed the same way, and who aren’t geniuses, but who notice the world around them. The antagonists of the novel are in some cases painted in very broad brush-strokes – Dondo is a bit of a cliche, and his followers similarly so, with their “bad characters we’re meant to dislike debauching in every way”; indeed, the novel is singularly unsubtle in who we’re meant to sympathise with, weakening the general message a bit.
Written in 2001, Curse of Chalion feels like a humanist and religious response to the grim movement led by George R. R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and others. It opens following Cazaril as a beggar, who has been whipped nearly to death while a galley slave; unflinchingly, Bujold tackles PTSD, male sexual assault, mutilation and violence, but without the pornographising of the grimdark movement, and without pretending it is only ever directed at women (rape is never portrayed, but it is implied, of both men and women). However, this isn’t in the name of showing how awful everyone is, and that there’s no hope; Curse of Chalion isn’t that kind of book. Instead, it’s about showing how bad people can be; about how society (and, admittedly, magic) can enable people to be vile or force them into vileness, as much as freedom of choice can lead them to be noble, good people (and that the latter can win, though they won’t necessarily do so).
That’s the humanism; but the religiousness of the novel is perhaps more interesting. Curse of Chalion isn’t a straightforward parable, by any stretch of the imagination, although the differences between the Quintarian and Quadrene believers have parallels within Christianity and within the family of the Abrahamic religions. Instead, it’s a meditation on faith itself, and on what faith is; it’s a generous novel, in that regard, in a way that much of fantastic fiction isn’t. The gods work, as in most practiced theologies, through humans opening their hearts and their wills to them; and the gods do actually work through that, in ways both subtle and large. Religion is assumed, but doesn’t make one good – one can be a practitioner and vile, or one who just makes gestures to faithfulness and on the side of good. Bujold’s exploration of faith has a subtlety and deftness to its touch that is belied by the apparent bluntness of its message; after all, some of the greatest good deeds of the novel have nothing to do with faith, and some of the darkest deeds have everything to do with it – Bujold’s idea of faith is essentially, after all, humanitarian.
One notable flaw of Curse of Chalion is its approach to queerness. It is, in some ways, novelly bad at its presentation of homosexuality, which almost becomes a strength, but still falls down. While the backstory includes multiple queer characters, including a poly triad, either every instance of queerness in the world is tragic (involving the death of one partner, often because of the other) or sadistic (because societal repression); homosexual rape in all-male environments in Curse of Chalion isn’t about power, as we sociologically know to be the case, but about expression of desires society demands be repressed, and so a matter of queerness. If we saw a happy queer couple in the book, this would be defused; but instead we see single queers happy, and queer couples consistently doomed to failure.
This leaves us with a novel that is at once disappointed in its approach to issues of queerness, but essentially uplifting; a painful contradiction for this queer but, in the end, the humanism wins out over the homophobic tropes, to make Curse of Chalion a pleasant, thought-provoking read.
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