Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Curse of Chalion

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 12/21/2014, Reviewed 12/31/2014
5 stars

I finally got around to reading the first book of this trilogy, having read the sequels, Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt, earlier this year.  Much to my relief, I found “The Curse of Chalion” to be an awesome book.  It has the same basic components found in the later novels, but this time, the whole was the greater than the sum of its parts. I was enthralled.

“Curse” follows Cazaril, who has just escaped nearly two years as a galley slave for the Roknari, the enemies of Chalion.  For some reason, he had been condemned to that fate after being ordered to surrender the castle he was defending from the Roknari while the rest of the soldiers were ransomed and released.  He returns to Chalion physically and emotionally damaged and assumes a position of tutor to Iselle, the royesse (princess) and Betriz, her lady-in-waiting, under the patronage of her grandmother, the dowager provincara, for whom he was a page before entering the military.  There, Cazaril discovers that nearly that the whole royal family is under a dark curse, and he seems to be the one person who can break it.

It’s taken me a long time to write this review.  I knew I loved it, but I wasn’t sure why.  After a lot of reflection, I think the reason is the main character, Cazaril.  He’s a broken man, hoping to find a place for himself in his old world, no matter how lowly.  He is empty, defeated, feeling less than everyone around him.  He’d rather not engage, let alone talk about himself, lest tears well up, plummeting him into a debilitating crying fit.  Reading this book at this point in my life, I could relate to brokenness, sidestepping conversations, lying in response to the question “How are you?”, and wondering what passing remark or obscure reference will tip me over the edge. 

Yet through all this dejectedness, Cazaril finds he is wanted, needed, and loved.  He is even willing to give up his life to save the lives of the people who have shown him kindness.  And by being the hero for Chalion, he also redeems himself.

Once again, the religion of Bujold’s universe is a main character in the story.  The five gods, the Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, and the Bastard, play major roles in the people of Chalion.  The Mother and Daughter are featured in this novel.  At one point, Cazaril finds he has become a saint, touched by one of the gods and given a second site that lets him see auras and ghosts, and hearing the gods’ whisperings.  This gift permits Cazaril a reprieve from a demon who wants to steal his soul for dabbling in death magic, and possession by the soul of the man who died because of it. 

The basic plot of this book is very simple, saving a kingdom from an evil usurper.  But it’s the journey of Cazaril through his own personal demons, as well as through the spiritual nightmare he’s put himself in that makes the book so astounding.  The supporting characters are also great.  I loved Iselle and Betriz.  Through the book, they grow from annoying, vapid teenagers to confident, powerful young adults.

I also really liked Umegat, a groom to the current roya (king) of Chalion.  He’s another broken man who carries a powerful spiritual experience within himself as well.  At first, he seems a little like Lurch from the Addams Family.  But he transforms into a profound confidant, mentor, guardian, and friend to Cazaril.

The last thing I want to mention is the sensuality of the book.  Bujold created characters that, while not all beautiful (though of course, some are very much so), have an earthiness that was viscerally compelling.  Even in reflecting on the book while I write this review, I can still feel the powerful attraction I had to these people.  I think this signifies that Bujold created real people, not cardboard characters in a fantasy opera.  I cared deeply for them.  Though it’s easy to tell how the story will end (even without reading the sequels first), I wanted to see Cazaril heroic journey and how Iselle comes into her own.  After the last page, I wanted to hug them tightly and whisper in their ears, “See, you did it”.

I give this book 5 out of 5 stars for the depth of Cazaril and the supporting characters, and for the last sentence of my last paragraph.  I think if I had read this book first, I might have had a different experience with the sequels, though they were all supposed to be stand-alone stories.  Or maybe I just read this book at the right time in my life to finally get what Bujold trying to build in her universe of Chalion.  .    

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