Wednesday, March 14, 2007


I've had THE CURSE OF CHALION sitting in one of my many to-be-read piles for more than a year. I knew McMaster Bujold could write very well from her Vorkosigan books. I simply am easily distracted by something new.

I regret not reading it sooner. This is a truly marvelous novel of one man's journey through tremendous difficulties and how those woes are redeemed, ultimately, for the good of many. And if you are tired of SF novels not dealing with matters of spirituality in any depth--a lack that is shameful given how very religious humankind has always been and likely always will be--you will find this a truly satisfying exploration of faith, loss of faith, prayer, curses, blessings, fate, free will and divine intervention. It's also a novel that, while dealing with religion, doesn't sneer or cast ministers or saints in an sarcastic or demeaning light. It takes the subject quite seriously and explores it without the arrogance that a secular elite can cast on it. It takes the "what if" of this religion being truly existent and says, "Now, how does this work out in a cursed kingdom with a man who's suffered about as much as he can humanly take?"

Whom the gods choose is not always a happy camper. (Think of all the martyrs of various religions.)

The fantasy setting: A medievalish, fortress and castle filled world akin to Spain/Portugal several hundred years ago, where reilgion is part of civil and royal life, where saints are acknowledged as god-touched, and where a curse has come upon a royal line due to a cataclysmic event during a previous time of warfare.

The protagonist: Lupe dy Cazaril, an honorable man and brave soldier of gentlemanly lineage who had been betrayed in warfare, resulting in a tour of galley slavery (think Ben Hur-ish oaring for one's enemies). He is damaged in body and humbled, but his nobility of spirit and wisdom and unselfishness and wits are intact. You will root for this character, and perhaps, like me, weep for him, too.

The situation: Through a chain of events, Cazaril comes back to his home town and is engaged as tutor to the royesse (a princess), whose brother is heir to the throne. Terrible events have fallen and continue to befall this cursed family, and Cazaril, who feels great loyalty and comes to love his charges and his patrons, becomes inextricably entangled in the intrigue and plots (supernatural and human), while himself a target of those who originally wished him dead and caused his slavery, the two most powerful men in the land of Chalion, barring the ruler himself. Court intrigue abounds. Cazaril must use all his powers of observation and intelligence, and all his courage and endurance, to seek and accomplish the liberation of his beloved charges from dangers of curse and plotters.

I don't want to say much beyond that, since the pleasure of the novel is in the reading and the roads taken. I"ll let you walk those roads unspoiled.

What I will say is that as a devout Christian, I thoroughly enjoyed the spiritual world McMaster Bujold has created. You get a sense of a religion drenched, god-observed world, and how that can bring great dangers (heresies are punished in just as cruel ways as history records), and obedience and selflessness are as powerful as a Christian would expect. The religion is certainly not Christianity (five gods of both attributed genders, various sexual preferences acceptable), but the echoes of a Roman Catholic religion is there in the sanctuaries, devouts, pilgrimages, saints, miracles, etc.

And the idea of the chosen ones of the gods/God is there: One person's virtue can make a huge difference to his circle of influence, as it does here. And the climactic scene is so beautifully and simply depicted (no excess of prose, no over-the-top language pyrotechnics), that it allows us to feel the lightning-fast and world-altering moment as participants, without clutter, with just wonder. It's magnificently achieved.

Cazaril is one of my fave characters ever. A man we'd all like to know, a man we'd all love to see in the corridors of power-someone who puts the good of others above his own good, someone who acts with total purity of heart, wise and generous and humble.

I'm already a third of the way into the second and Hugo-winning book in this series, PALADIN OF SOULS, which follows the adventures of one of the cursed and redemption-needy characters from this novel. The religous exploration remains, and Ista, the protagonist, will have to take a journey similar to Cazaril's in order to help her people, it seems. However, so far, I'd rate THE CURSE OF CHALION higher. We'll see how that turns out once I complete the story.

THE CURSE OF CHALION was nominated for a World Fantasy (lost to LeGuin's THE OTHER WIND) and a Hugo (lost to Gaiman's AMERICAN GODS), and it won a Mythopoeic Award.

I cannot recommend it highly enough. A novel that rewards the reader who is patient and observant during the slower-paced opening.


Scott M. Sandridge said...

Good review, Mir!

Mirtika said...

Thanks, Scotty!