My thanks to murderofcrows for drawing my attention to this wonderful author!
When I was miserably working on my dissertation nearly two decades ago, I read an article in the free weekly about the ‘most popular fantasy book that no one knows about’ or somesuch. It was, of course, A Song of Ice and Fire, and it really helped me escape from my day to day anxiety; however, the constant violence and brutality wore me down after a while. Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion reminded me of A Song of Ice and Fire in terms of topic and perhaps scope. Candidly, this made me quite tense as I read, waiting for brutal acts around every corner – and there was brutality, but it tended to be off-page and it was definitely in service of the plot. I think this contrast is due, in part, to the grounding of the book in people and their efforts to prevail (or persist) in the face of violence, chaos, ‘evil,’ and the socio-cultural milieu that they find themselves in. The empire building and political and military machinations are the backdrop, while the protagonists’ spiritual and personal growth (and safety) are the focus.
Briefly, Cazaril escapes from a ship and makes his way, painfully, back to the city where he was a page before he began his military career that ended as a galley slave. His body is broken and he has been viscously betrayed. All he wants is a quiet corner in the manor where he served. Because of his courtliness, kindness, and honesty, he is given the role of tutor and secretary to the young lady of the manor, Iselle. His role is to educate her and to help her navigate the treacherous shoals of political intrigue at court. While she begins the book as a charming headstrong girl, Iselle develops as a delightful character who can play politics with the best but doesn’t forget the human suffering inherent in so many decisions. The curse mentioned in the title is a metaphysical one that is embodied by Cazaril through a gruesome turn of events. One aspect of the story I really appreciated was that he didn’t suffer alone – he shared his misfortune with several trusted friends, and leaned on them for support and guidance as he and Iselle and others fought for the ‘soul’ of the empire. Political wrangling was well-articulated, bad guys behaved badly, and “the duty set before [one] is the duty desired of [one].” Fundamentally, this is a story about doing the work in the hopes of creating the outcomes you desire.
Briefly, I enjoyed this book and it is great for Fall, where I find myself melancholy – for that is the general mood of the book. The characters, even minor characters, played roles very suited to what we knew of them, and they enriched and grounded the story through the political machinations and theological struggles. I liked this, also, because it wasn’t obviously the beginning of a longer series. The story ended such that no further books are necessary. I discovered today that there is a follow-up, and I will seek it out because I liked the world and the moral exploration that Bujold crafted.
I will note there is some violence against animals, for those who can’t tolerate that. It was an important plot point, but quite painful to read.