Lois McMaster Bujold: The Curse of Chalion

After the main character of her Miles Vorkosigan series got married, the series kind of stalled out and Lois McMaster Bujold turned to writing fantasy novels, of which this was the first. She’d previously written an uninspiring fantasy named The Spirit Ring, and since in general I’m not a fan of heroic fantasy I dithered for a long time before reading The Curse of Chalion, but since my book discussion group is reading its sequel Paladin of Souls this month, I finally sat down and tackled it.

Chalion is a nation in a generic European medieval fantasy setting, set between two other nations with whom it fights wars from time to time. Our hero, Cazaril, is a former soldier and a broken man; he’d once captained the defense of a castle until their negotiated surrender, and then he was left off the list of names ransomed back to Chalion and sold off as a galley-slave. Eventually freed, he returns to Chalion at the age of 35 – but in a body that feels far older – seeking some small employment with a noble family he’d served years before.

Cazaril gets a lot more than he bargained for, as the provencara of the castle is grandmother to the heir to the throne of Chalion, Teidez, and his sister Iselle. After just long enough to get his bearings, the provencara hires him as Iselle’s tutor (in an exchange which is probably the high point of the novel). This would be difficult enough except that not long after Teidez and Iselle are summoned to the throne of the kingdom. The king, Orico, is old and ill and is largely controlled by his chancellor, Martou dy Jironal, and his younger brother Dondo. The dy Jironals want to get their claws into Teidez and Iselle so they can control the next generation of the throne, and while Iselle is smart enough (with advice from Cazaril) to recognize that she’s being played, Teidez is easily seduced by the riches and flattery the brothers heap on him. Worse, for Cazaril, is that the brothers are responsible for his being sold off years ago, and he’s certain that they plan to get rid of him to cover one of the few tracks they’ve left. When the brothers try to force an alliance by marriage, several desperate souls are moved to stop them, including through the use of death magic – in which one sacrifices oneself to kill another – but things go strangely awry, to the confusion of everyone.

On top of this, it turns out that the royal family of Chalion has been cursed for several generations, that this is what’s holding down Orico, and that Teidez and Iselle will surely inherit the curse when they inherit the kingdom. So Cazaril and Iselle are put in the position of trying to end the curse – through means they can barely imagine – while trying to foil dy Jironal’s ongoing machinations. Along the way they meet some interesting allies while trying to avoid their myriad enemies.

While Bujold still meets the requirements of telling a story that goes somewhere, and flashes some of her skills with dialogue and humor at times, but overall I found this to be a bland book. The setting is relentlessly generic, with nothing to set it apart from any number of other heroic fantasy settings. The characters are also pretty generic, with a standard assortment of “strong women trying to rise above their medieval stereotypes”, “misguided young men”, “corrupt schemers trying to eliminate their rivals”, and so forth. The novel is essentially plot-driven, with character developments that seem de rigueuer given the story developments.

Unfortunately, one of the worst problems a plot-driven novel can have is to be slow, and The Curse of Chalion is oh-so-very slow. It starts with one of the least informative opening paragraphs I can recall in a novel, telling us essentially nothing about the setting, character, or scenario. From there the story drags on for over 50 pages before anything interesting happens, and then bogs down again for more than another 50 pages before the characters finally head off to the royal court. And though Bujold doesn’t generally write action stories, the dialogue here isn’t much to write home about, so the text doesn’t even keep things moving along through lively exchanges between the characters. It just drags.

The novel’s saving grace is Cazaril, the one character who has any, well, character, as a former soldier whose spirit has been broken and has to put himself back together again for the good of the kingdom and of Iselle. His position as the wise advisor to Iselle and some of the dumber supporting characters is a pretty stock position, and his rewards for deeds well done at the end are likewise routine, but his internal struggles to overcome his burdens make for the book’s most interesting moments, especially when he’s revealing his past to another character, or being amazed at the unique position in which he’s been placed.

But overall The Curse of Chalion is merely light entertainment, and it could easily have had 200 or so pages edited out of it. I was a big fan of Bujold’s earlier novels, but I think she peaked with Mirror Dance and her writing has been in decline ever since. This one’s one of her weakest, and it doesn’t give me optimism towards Paladin of Souls.