While I enjoy a good fantasy yarn that’s full of brave knights, beautiful princesses, ancient wizards, and fearsome dragons, sometimes it’s good to read something not so typical — something that, while certainly within the fantasy genre, nevertheless approaches the genre from a different, even subtler angle. One such novel that does that is Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, and as a result, it’s one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking novels, fantasy or otherwise, that I’ve read in quite some time.
Set in a land that vaguely resembles medieval Portugal and Spain — think a subtler version of Guy Gavriel Kay’s penchant for paralleling real world cultures — the novel eschews many of the usual fantasy tropes. There are no epic battles, no scheming wizards, no otherworldly monsters to vanquish. If anything, the novel is more political in nature, as it confront the various political and religious machinations across various countries and cultures.
Arguably the best aspect of The Curse of Chalion is its protagonist, a broken man named Lupe dy Cazaril. As the novel opens, Cazaril is slowly making his way back to Chalion after spending nearly two years as a prisoner of war. Suffering from a severe case of PTSD due to his imprisonment, Cazaril hopes to gain some meager employment at his old home, only to be made the tutor for a headstrong princess named Iselle dy Chalion and her companion Betriz dy Ferrej. It’s refreshing to read about a fantasy hero who has no desire to be a hero, but rather, wants only to live humbly and quietly and be a teacher and scholar. That sense of humility goes for the novel as a whole, too; while a lot certainly happens in its pages, The Curse of Chalion is a far cry from the sort of epic, sweeping story that seems to define the genre.
Of course, Cazaril’s hope for a quiet life is undone once political machinations begin a-swirling that put his young charge Iselle in danger. Which leads to the novel’s next interesting facet, it’s treatment of spirituality and religion. As the result of a desperate action to save his charge, Cazaril is cursed/blessed by the gods. His eyes are opened to a new spiritual reality, and the novel contains several fascinating scenes where Cazaril discusses the nature of the gods, divine intervention, and human free will and agency with a friendly priest.
Through it all, Cazaril never loses his intrinsic humility and brokenness, even as he despairs of his current situation. He becomes something of a suffering servant, literally carrying the wages of sin and death within his own body even while trying to protect his young charge and her homeland through politics and diplomacy.
Originally published in 2001, The Curse of Chalion won a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and was nominated for Hugo, World Fantasy, and Locus Fantasy Awards. Which might lead you to think that it’s a heady, hard-to-read tome. While it’s not exactly a breezy, late night read, Bujold’s prose is beautiful and engrossing; indeed, there were several times when I simply couldn’t put it down, I was so interested in knowing what happened to Cazaril, Iselle, Betriz, and the rest of the characters, even the villains.
There are a few unexpected twists and turns, but they’re more rewarding rather than frustrating, and the novel’s ending does feel a bit too quick and neat — but maybe I’m just saying that because I didn’t want to stop reading. And though Cazaril is pretty unassuming throughout the novel, he does have one or two moments of bad-assery that are satisfying.
So far, Bujold has written two follow-up novels: Paladin of Souls, a sequel set several years after The Curse of Chalion that focuses on one of the first novel’s minor characters; and The Hallowed Hunt, a prequel set a couple hundred years before The Curse of Chalion. Paladin of Souls is also an excellent read, and continues with The Curse of Chalion’s mix of political and spiritual intrigue. As for The Hallowed Hunt, I’ve only started reading it so I can’t yet say how it compares to the first two novels. Two recently released novellas — “Penric’s Demon” and “Penric and the Shaman” — are also set in the same world, their stories falling between The Hallowed Hunt and The Curse of Chalion.