As I continue to dig through my older to-read pile, I have been hitting a lot of books that my opinions of could be charitably described as “late to the party”. One exception to this case might be a lesser known classic that I would love to draw your attention to: The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Those who know it almost always love it, but I have been finding that many avid readers (myself included until recently) know little about it. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Lois McMaster Bujold is a quite famous author best known for her Vorkosigan Saga – a science fiction series epic in size that actually just won the Hugo for best series this year. However, Bujold has written a number of books in various genres, and one of her most highly regarded, though still lesser known, is a semi standalone fantasy novel called The Curse of Chalion. The book technically has both a prequel and a sequel, but they both seem to only tangentially follow the events of Chalion so I am going to treat it as a standalone.
Chalion’s plot is a bit difficult to describe, as it is one of those books where the point is less about what happens and more about the emotional journey it takes you on. The story follows Cazaril, a middle aged disenfranchised nobleman. We meet Cazaril at the start of the book just after he has escaped life as a slave and is traveling back to friends of his youth – hoping they will remember and employ him. Upon arriving at the estate of Chalion where he was once a page, he is recognized and soon given a job as a tutor for a princess. The book then spends a significant amount of time developing the cast of characters, exploring Cazaril’s backstory, fleshing out a well-built world, and introducing the endgame of the plot: the house of Chalion has an age old curse that must be broken. A large portion of the book revolves around its religious structure and the worship of a family of five gods (The Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, and Bastard) that all represent different aspects of life. I found that Bujold’s interesting take on Gods, and their involvement in everyone’s life, was one of my favorite elements of the book and really gave her world a unique feel.
This is a gross oversimplification of the story because the writing in Chalion is very much a slow burn. Bujold’s writing style reminds me very much of one of my favorite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, in its slow pace and beautiful prose. Fortunately the slow pacing is very enjoyable because the cast of characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are excellently written and pleasent to be around. Chalion accomplishes the rare feat of showing some of the cast grow up over time and getting you invested in how they change as a person. This is particularly impressive because as I mentioned the story is contained to a single book. To make up for this, the book is extremely large and I would not recommend it to those who are looking for breakneck pacing and action. Chalion feels almost like the literary version of a gentleman, preferring to resolve all conflicts with words and discussion as opposed to combat.
As mentioned before, the prose in this novel is gorgeous. I found myself presented with an endless stream of quotes that I was sending to friends because they were profound and wonderful. Bujold has an outlook on life and a way with words that combined make her narrative voice a joy to read. An additional major focus of the book is on romance, and I think you would truly have to be dead inside to not enjoy it. The cast is charming, loveable, and genuine and watching the various members slowly come together is simply heartwarming.
The Curse of Chalion is food for the soul and a gorgeous piece of writing. It is a shame that I constantly see it on underread and underrated fantasy lists because it was one of the most warm books I have read this year. If you have the patience for a book with a slower pace or are looking for a story with a heart of gold I definitely recommend you check out this self-contained story. In the meantime, I am clearly going to have to check out The Vorkosigan Saga to get some more time with Bujold’s narrative voice.
Rating: The Curse of Chalion – 8.5/10