Friday 26 August 2011

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold is best known for her excellent Vorkosigan SF series (five of which I have already reviewed on this blog, with several more waiting to be read) but The Curse of Chalion is a classic medieval-with-magic fantasy.

The story is set on an unspecified planet with vague geography (no maps) which seems to be a kind of alternative Earth, judging by the plants and animals described. There are the usual small kingdoms in uneasy juxtaposition, fighting occasional wars in various combinations. Military technology consists of swords and crossbows. The religion has five gods with different roles (although one bunch of heretics only worships four), but while there is occasional evidence that the gods exist, they rarely get involved in human affairs. There isn't even any magic in the usual sense of practitioners casting spells, with one exception: Death Magic. Anyone can learn how to do this, with enough research and determination; it involves calling on one of the gods to send a demon to kill a hated enemy. The only catch is that the person working the magic invariably dies too.

The hero of the story, Cazaril, is a minor lord and former courtier and soldier who has fallen on hard times due to betrayal and subsequent slavery. Penniless, exhausted, and still half-crippled by injury, he makes his way to Valenda, a city in the land of Chalion in whose court he had worked as a young page some twenty years before, in search of some menial job and a place to live. There he meets Iselle, a royesse (princess) of Chalion, and finds himself reluctantly roped in to act as her secretary/tutor. He tries to impart some of his hard-won wisdom to the headstrong young royesse but when the action moves to the royal court in Cardegoss, Cazaril is tested to the limit in his determination to protect Iselle from the political and magical dangers surrounding her.

The setting sounds somewhat unoriginal as similar territory has been marched over countless times by other authors, but Bujold adds her own distinctive style. She is a natural and intelligent story-teller, injecting occasional flashes of wry humour (an element which tends to be sadly lacking in fantasy, in which authors often take their creations much too seriously). Her characterisation is as good as usual and the reader soon comes to care about her characters and what happens to them. There is something of the flavour of Guy Gavriel Kay in the writing, but Bujold is less dark and elegiac. After a slowish start the pace gradually accelerates and I read the last half of this substantial (500 page) tome in one sitting, late into the night: something which I rarely do.

The Curse of Chalion may appear somewhat formulaic but if you enjoy this kind of story this is about as good as it ever gets.


Bill Garthright said...

I'm glad you liked it, Tony. But it's interesting that you describe it as "somewhat formulaic," because I was bowled over by how fresh it seemed.

My biggest problem with fantasy is that most authors seem to have no imagination, just writing the same thing everyone else is writing. And from that perspective, The Curse of Chalion seemed like a breath of fresh air to me.

As you say, Death Magic was the only magic that seemed to exist on this world, and that was simply divine magic. And I thought how the gods worked - and especially, how their saints felt about that - was quite unique.

Of course, I loved Bujold's characters. She has the knack of getting me to care what happens to them - pretty much right from the first page. I've got to say that this is one of my all-time favorite fantasies.

Anthony G Williams said...

I suppose it was the mock-medieval setting which made me think of it as formulaic. I have read so many books set in such worlds, divided into little kingdoms at war with each other in pre-gunpowder times, and featuring court intrigues. It's become something of a fantasy cliche.

Bill Garthright said...

Yes, I see what you mean, Tony. But any society before the modern, scientific era will seem rather like that, won't it?

You say mock-medieval, but is it really? Or is it just a low-tech world?

And a high-tech world would likely be science fiction, not fantasy - although there is the current craze for "urban fantasy" (which I consider to be really formulaic).

Well, maybe it's just that my own imagination is lacking. That's likely enough.

Anthony G Williams said...

I think that most fiction is formulaic, particularly the most popular types: crime stories (murder is committed - detective solves case); and romances (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again).

It isn't necessarily a bad thing, indeed that's part of the "comfort factor" in reading such books. I doubt that there would be much of a market for crime fiction in which the detective conmsistently fails to solve the case, or romances in which the boy always loses the girl (you do get occasional stories like that, of course, but they are the exceptions).

Genuinely different, unpredictable stories tend to be lot more interesting, I think.

The Gray Monk said...

As a struggling author myself, I think you are right about most stories being "formulaic" but what really counts is how the formula carries the story. I'm not much of a fantasy reader, most I find rather disappointing, but I'm certainly tempted to give this one a try after reading your review and comments.

One reason I often find pure fantasy disappointing is the lack of realism in the settings - for instance in a medieval society many authors simply downgrade modern buildings to an "old time" period and don't realise that inns, for instance, didn't have private rooms, they were usually simply a large hall and the patrons found a space and slept sitting or lying on cloaks and the rushes. Transport is another aspect as is freedom of movement, in a medieval setting very few people could afford a horse and even fewer actually had the freedom to leave their "parish."

OK, I'm on my pet peeve now, I'll go and see what I can find of Bujold's work and give it a try.

Anthony G Williams said...

Yes, medieval fantasies usually gloss over such unromantic issues as personal hygiene, fleas and the other unpleasant realities of life in such times! Bujold does at least touch on such things.