‘The Curse of Chalion’ by Lois McMaster Bujold

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned.

This is maybe my favorite book of all time. I’ve read it five or six (or more) times. I was in the mood for some comfort reading, and as I was writing my ‘On Pacing and Structure’ blogposts I was consistently using this as an example of what to do right, so I decided to re-read this for for old-time’s sake.

I’ve already reviewed this on my blog. Here is my previous review.


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

I love most, if not all the characters in this book.

This book is written in very close third person, so close it’s practically first person. Lupe dy Cazaril is the protagonist, and his scholarly and sardonic perspective. Reading this story is just a joy. Cazaril is as pleasant a perspective to inhabit as any I’ve read. Oftentimes the author claims that the protagonist is a smart person, without doing the hard narrative work of proving through the actions of the story that this is actually the case. Not true in this case; time and again Cazaril proves his wits. Lupe is one of my favorite characters of all time.

Cazaril’s spiritual journey from emotional oblivion at the start of the book (content to only wash dishes, if it means an end to his struggles) to a holy saint by the end (sacrificing his own life three times on behalf of other people) makes sense. The mere fact that such an enormous character arc actually makes sense is wild. I can’t remember another story where the protagonist goes from one emotional pole to another, of absolute soul-crushing oblivion to being so open-hearted he’s willing to lay down his life three times to save his loved ones. It shouldn’t work, but it works so well that (for me at least) it’s emotionally resonant.

Cazaril is the most nuanced of all the characters, however many of the side characters are entertaining.

I liked Iselle’s character arc. The author used the trick of ‘the protagonist failing something in the first act, but succeed at it that same thing in the final act. In Act 1 Iselle confronts the corrupt judge publicly, establishing her good character while also proving her recklessness and making an enemy for herself. In the final act, Iselle uses misdirection to confront corruption instead, defeating Martou without giving him the opportunity to strike back.

Umagat’s character is just amazing. He’s an old man who’s suffered a lot in life on behalf of his faith, (reinforcing the theme of faith), and is made to suffer more for his faith in this book (again, reinforcing this theme). Nonetheless he doesn’t abandon his faith. He acts as a narrative foreshadowing/prelude to Cazaril’s arc.

Oricho and Sara, while they don’t have character arcs, are nonetheless super inspirational. The author made Oricho, who by all rights should be a despicable character, pitiable instead.  And Sara… You’d never guess that meek Sara will make one of the most important sacrifices of the entire plot (reinforcing the theme of sacrificing your personal well-being for the greater good/on faith alone).

  • Iselle had to marry Burgon before Oricho died, or else Martou would take over Chalion and start a civil war. To prevent this outcome, after Oricho died Sara sat with her husband’s rotting, bloating corpse for several days, pretending he was still alive. As a result Martou never got the chance to start the civil war. This gave Iselle and Burgon the opportunity to claim victory over Martou.
  • This sacrifice is so subtle that the first few times I read this book I thought little of it. On reflection, it is anything but. Sara is portrayed as being meek, but in truth I think she might be the most noble and dignified character in the entire novel. She spoke very little dialogue in the entire novel, but had a TON of characterization hidden in the text of the novel.

As for Tedeiz… poor Tedeiz. He was doomed from the start, his savoir never showing up. Another character of pity. He just wanted to follow his impulses like any teenager, but his curse screwed him over.

Ista’s also one of my favorite characters of all time. Refer to my review  of ‘Paladin of Souls’ for details on why.

Martou and Dondo were not as memorable as the above, but they nonetheless were distinct characters with unique characterization. I wish the author fleshed them out a bit more, but honestly barring giving them POV sequences I think these villains were above average for the fantasy genre.

Now for constructive criticism.

On this re-read I consistently noticed Lupe’s pining away after Beatrez. Lupe and Beatrez get together by the end in a consensual relationship, however beyond just general pining away they never had any romantic moments alone. Their relationship didn’t work.

Also, the antagonists of this story didn’t really serve to reinforce the themes of free will and personal faith. Dondo and Martou’s tragic flaws did not result in their ultimate downfalls. It would have been LIT if, for example, Martou tried to use and amplify the Curse for his own personal benefit, so when in the last minute when the curse was lifted and he was defeated there was dramatic irony in his defeat (i.e. hoisted by his own petard).

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (A+)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

The first Act of the book, which took place in the small town of Valinda, was a slow and quiet act where we get to know the protagonists and the setting. It’s a pleasant part of the story, almost homey, but it’s a slow start.

After the first act, the book had no fat on it. Reading this story while I’m in the middle of studying structure and pacing made me realize how sharply plotted and structured this novel is. When one story beat/micro act ends, and the next one immediately begins.

  • For example, after Lupe turns down Dondo’s bribe, Lupe is immediately accused of rape by Dondo. After Tedeiz’s tutor helps prove Lupe’s innocence, that tutor is assassinated. After that assassination, Tedeiz falls under the sway of Dondo. After Tedeiz falls under the sway of Dondo, Dondo uses his connections to arrange a marriage with Iselle…

Such abrupt transitions were a bit jarring because there are basically no interstitial scenes between them. Now to be sure each and every scene individually was near perfect from a narrative perspective. However there was insufficient glue holding the individual plot beats together.

Each and every scene served to advance the plot. Honestly? It was a bit frenetic feeling. The mellow, pleasant joy of act 1 largely disappeared, only re-appearing occasionally in tender moments of characterization… and even then, those moments of characterization advance the plot.

On this re-read, I decided I would have liked some more fat. You know when I said above that that the romance between Lupe and Beatrez needed some romantic scenes alone? I feel as though those scenes got left on the cutting room floor. That’s the sort of fat which would have made the meat of the story more tasty.

I can’t take too many points off for this flaw; each plot beat was individually gorgeous. I just wanted more narrative glue in there to hold the beats together, something similar to the surpassing sweetness of act 1.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (A)


PLOT

The author successfully tells a story of heartbreak, trauma, despair, and redemption. The author uses Deus-Ex-Machinas all the time, but given the god-laden nature of the story it totally works and enhances the theme of the story.

The story had both high stakes (the nation of Chalion’s doom), and personal stakes (the doom of Iselle, Tedeiz, Oricho, Ista, and Sara). You loved the heroes, and despise the villains. The bad guys weren’t Sauron-esque monsters, but instead everyday corrupt politicians and petty rapists. I enjoyed their everyday nature, because it made them believable (a la Umbridge).

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (A+)


SETTING AND WORLDBUILDING AND PROSE

This is my favorite setting in the fantasy genre being told today. The faux-medieval setting combined with a fleshed out religious system to reinforce the themes of free will and faith.

Bujold is one of very few authors tackle the idea of worship and gods from an altogether positive direction. I wish more authors did, because this is gorgeous. We live in a jaded time where organized religion can and should be questioned, but in my mind the fantasy genre has gone so far in the cynical direction that we’ve neglected the virtues of simple faith in favor of only talking about religion’s sins.

I love the gods in this setting. They are the Mother, Father, Daughter, Son and Bastard. Each represents an archetype. As example, the Mother is the god of mothers, summer, birth and healing. They represent everything it means to be human. But the gods in this setting are more than just really powerful humans; they are so grand and all-loving they come across as almost eldritch creatures. It’s such a beautiful take on the whole ‘deity’ concept that I found an element of personal truth in it.

Also her prose is unobtrusively gorgeous. She effortlessly writes prose in a stylish way, leaving me personally feeling jealous.

In the best fantasy stories, the magic system underscores the story’s theme. In ‘Curse of Chalion,’ this is most certainly the case. The theme in this story is all about free will, and personal faith. If your faith is strong enough, and you’re willing to humble yourself before the gods by sacrificing your free will, the gods will allow you to be the vessel for a miracle. This sacrifice isn’t as easy as it seems; humbling yourself comes at such a steep personal cost- maybe even your life. I loved this take on magic; it made it seem much more magical.

I give the Setting: (A+)


SUMMARY

This is one of the best fantasy stories I’ve ever read. If the author just pushed the story in a slightly different direction, this could have become one of the darkest books I’ve ever read. Instead she went in a slightly different direction, and this became a book about hope and faith rewarded and love. And I love that hopefulness.


STARS: 5 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 stars=perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)

GRADE: Basically Perfect. In my opinion, it’s the best High Fantasy novel of the last 20 or 30 years.

Overall Rating: Highly Recommended  (How I Rate Books)


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Website

Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Political Fantasy, Chalion, 5 Gods, Religious Fantasy, Hopepunk, Hopeful Fantasy

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

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