THE CURSE OF CHALION
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Lois McMaster Bujold has carved out a niche for herself by writing clever, romantic space operas about the Vorkosigan family of Barrayar. There is every indication that her legions of fans would be ecstatic if she were to continue in that vein to the exclusion of everything else. Bujold does not appear content to rest on her laurels and her interests are clearly not confined to the universe which is her most well-known creation. She has previously written a novel, The Spirit Ring, which has its roots in Renaissance Italy. In The Curse of Chalion, Bujold has created a complex medieval society with shades of Spanish culture, although not defined as such.Bujold’s story focuses on Castillar Lupe dy Cazaril, a down-on-his-luck nobleman who gains a position as the tutor and personal secretary to royasse Iselle, the half-sister of the roya (king) of Chalion. Bujold portrays Cazaril as a widely traveled adventurer with a politically dangerous betrayal in his background. Although Cazaril is only a moderately competent swordsman, Bujold uses this weakness to force him to rely on his mental acuity throughout the novel.
The Curse of Chalion aloows Bujold to demonstrate her skill at world-building completely separate from the preconceived worlds of the Vorkosigan universe. In this case, she has created a realm which espouses an interesting five-deity pantheon, along with a four-deity heretical version. Because the scope of this world is so much smaller than the Vorkosigan world, Bujold is able to incorporate more detail in a single book. At the same time, the reader's background is less because it hasn't been built up over several novels. Compared to the earliest of Bujold's Vorkosigan novels, however, The Curse of Chalion demonstrates Bujold's growth as a world-builder.
The choice of focusing the story on Cazaril and the royasse gives it a slightly unattached feel. The royasse's circle is peripheral to the main action at roya Orico's court and much of the intrigue is seen or adduced second-hand. Nevertheless, Cazaril is a strong, competent and likable character who forms the center of his own story and is able to provide the necessary glimpses into the main court intrigues. As Cazaril's position does change, he begins to question both himself and Martou dy Jironal, their motives and how much they are in control of their own fates.
Bujold's theology plays an important role, with several characters in the roles of saints, people who have been touched by one of the gods and who are on the gods' errands. However, her gods are neither all powerful nor guaranteed of success. Furthermore, the god's success, as exhibited throughout the novel, does not ensure the success of their followers and servants. Unfortunately, one of the major plot points is resolved by deus ex machina, perhaps inevitably given the large role the gods play in The Curse of Chalion, but that particular solution does feel like a cheat.
Even when dy Jironal seems his most two-dimensional, Bujold is sure to question his motives and background enough to give him some depth. In many ways, dy Jironal is the most interesting character in the book and, if the doubts Bujold hints at actually exist, would be an intriguing viewpoint character for an alternative version of The Curse of Chalion.
The Curse of Chalion is not simply Miles Vorkosigan set in a different era. Cazaril should be much more charismatic than Miles, but cannot command the loyalty or masses that Miles has at his beck and call. Faced with a roya much weaker than Barrayar's Gregor, Cazaril cannot find a way to work his way into Orico's inner circle. The Curse of Chalion has its own appeals, ranging from the thorough and intelligent world building to a wonderful cast of characters.
The Curse of Chalion proves that Bujold is able to tell a story which has a completely different setting and feel than what she is known for. Unlike many authors who attempt and fail to recreate themselves, Bujold has demonstrated that she is quite capable of taking whatever material she desires and forming into a riveting story of philosophy and adventure.
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