Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion (2001) was the highest ranked book on the Tor.com poll that I like and haven’t yet written about. It’s fantasy, and it’s the kind of fantasy we don't really have a name for — kingdom level fantasy, fantasy that isn’t about an epic battle between good and evil but about political manouvering and history with magic. It’s one of my favourite kinds of fantasy. The world here is loosely based on Reconquista Spain, only loosely but enough to make it different from the standard high medieval fantasyland. What we have here is a story that really grabs hold and gives you reason to care, at first for Cazaril, coming home from the wars broken and betrayed, and then for what he comes to care about, the Royesse Iselle, and the curse on the royal house of Chalion.
The first thing I want to say is what an enjoyable book this is. It has that “I-want-to-read-it” nature, and I read it solidly from start to finish with hardly a pause, even though it’s fairly long. It’s also a book that has grown on me, I like it better now that when I first read it. The first time I read it I enjoyed it but I would rather have had another Miles book. Now I really like it. I don’t know if it’s because with all the tension it’s a book that’s better when you already know what happens and the shape of what’s going on, or whether it’s a book that reads better at 46 than at 36.
This is a much more political novel than the sequel, Paladin of Souls. Cazaril is a practical down-to-earth man who gets caught up in divine events willy nilly. It’s surprising, re-reading it, how slowly it gets going — plenty happens, and it's interesting and absorbing, but the magical plot is set up carefully and doesn’t take centre stage until half way through. The political complications are enough as the world unfolds to us slowly. Cazaril comes home to Valanda and becomes Iselle’s tutor. He’s trying to teach her wisdom and moderation along with geography and Darthacan verbs. Then they are summoned to court and things speed up, but it isn’t until things get desperate and he tries magic as an act of desperation, believing it will kill him.
The details are all beautifully worked out, and the large cast of characters all excellently characterised and memorable — you wouldn’t expect any less from Bujold. The technology and the interlocking history and politics is all terrific. It all feels real and solid, from the four lobed temples to the rope of tainted pearls. The magic and divinity is so well integrated into all of this that you’d think that was real as well — she’s really thought it through.
On my first reading I thought it was the beginning of a rather different kind of series. Bujold has made a world with five gods, and a very fine theology and approach to the numinous. She has said that she intended to write a book for each of the gods — so far she’s done the Daughter, the Bastard, and the Son, which would leave the Mother and the Father yet to do. (I haven’t heard that she’s working on them. And hey, Ivan book.) What I expected after reading this book was that we were going to see the political future of Iselle and Bergon as Isabella and Ferdinand. And reading this again now, yes, I’d like to see how that goes, I’d certainly be interested, but I can see that it wasn’t the thing Bujold was interested in exploring with fantasy, and I like what she wanted to do better. Indeed, that’s probably why I like it better — having read The Paladin of Souls, I understand what she’s doing and I can appreciate it properly.
Great book, and I’m not at all tired of this world, I think I’ll read the sequels now.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.