Harper Torch, 2001, 502 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-81860-4
I approached Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion by reminding myself of the old conundrum about an irresistible force encountering an immovable object. Regular readers know that I’m not a fan of generic fantasy. Books in that genre first have to convince me to overcome my usual prejudices and only then can they start being evaluated on their own merits. On the other hand there’s Lois McMaster Bujold, who has rarely written something I haven’t liked. Even her most ordinary efforts, like Diplomatic Immunity, are comfortably above the average SF novel. She masters characterization like few others and her prose style is so smooth as to be irresistible.
And yet, most of her fiction output has been set in the “Miles Vorkosigan” SF universe. How would she do in a brand-new setting? While The Curse of Chalion is not her first foray in full-length fantasy (her little-known novel The Spirit Ring claims that honour), it seemed to mark not just a change of genre, but a new step in her career. (From Baen, she switched to Harper Collins for this novel and all latter ones; plans to return to Baen and Miles Vorkosigan, are as of yet unknown). So how did she do? How did I do?
Turn out that the immovable object was moved: The Curse of Chalion easily overcame my usual objections against fantasy in mere pages, and got better as it continued. It starts and ends with great characters; the rest naturally takes care of itself.
The standout hero of this story is Cazaril, an experienced warrior with plenty of scars: Abandoned by his own side, he returns to familiar grounds as the story opens, trying to find a new place for himself with scarcely nothing more than rags on his back. Fortunately (and “fortunately” is a word that plays heavily in a story dominated by gods), he still has a few friends: Before long, he finds himself assigned to be secretary-tutor to a princess. But there is a reason why his own side left him rotting in a foreign country: secrets that influential people still don’t want made public…
For its first half, The Curse of Chalion isn’t much more than palace intrigue with fantasy trappings. I write this as if it’s a bad thing, but it means a compulsively readable thriller thanks to Bujold’s capable hands. Cazaril is many things, but he is first a dependable character: The novel revolves around him (indeed, he’s the only viewpoint character) because he’s such a bedrock of common sense. Strong, battered, seasoned to the point of flippancy against impossible odds, he makes his choices and sticks to them whatever the consequences. It’s page-turning stuff, even if the “fantasy” label seems a bit weak.
And then something quite wonderful happens, turning the entire novel into something else. It’s not really a twist given how we don’t learn anything that overturns previous assumptions. But The Curse of Chalion suddenly delves far more deeply into the nature of its mythology, with very real religions and associated magical powers. Cazaril himself is transformed by this turning point, elevated to a position that is at odds with everything he’s known this far. And yet, he keeps pushing back, always fighting for what he swore to do. Romantic themes are gradually weaved into the story, alongside some more intrigue and high-level strategy. It ends as you may wish for, with a battle and a triumph.
Still, I remains of two minds about the book’s (over)use of chance and coincidence as plot drivers. On one hand, it becomes a real thematic element of the novel’s meditation over the role of gods in a world where their influence cannot be denied. What are mortals but mere puppets? On another hand, some of the plot developments still stretch credulity and do knock some structural supports out of the story. On yet another hand, most of those coincidences would have been perfectly fine in a novel twice its length showing the details preceding The Curse of Chalion… but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would have enjoyed reading it all. In the end, it’s better to nod along and consider all of it as divine intervention.
What’s not so attributable to divine intervention, however, is Bujold’s gift for characters and effortless prose. The Curse of Chalion is professional-level fantasy, attractive to even non-fans of the genre. In the age-old question, we now know that irresistible is stronger than immovable.