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REVIEW: The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Dear Ms. Bujold,

Last year my husband and I started reading your fantasy novel, The Curse of Chalion. We read it aloud to each other but only got as far as the 34% mark before we decided the pace was too slow.

The-Curse-of-ChalionI posted about this in my reading list post from last summer, and several readers assured me that if I continued, I’d see the pace accelerate. Then, earlier this year, some months after we put it down, my husband began reading it again and told me that ironically, we’d put it down just at the point when the story was about to get exciting.

This led me to pick up The Curse of Chalion again, and start reading from the point at which we quit. Since writing this review necessitates piecing together two different reading experiences that took place a year apart, I’ve decided to structure this review a little bit differently than I usually do, by quoting from my old post and giving my current thoughts on some of my previous observations.

The novel begins with its protagonist, Cazaril, wandering the countryside of Chalion homeless and wearing rags. Charity and the death of a well-dressed stranger bring Cazaril a bit of coin and good clothing, and he uses these to make himself presentable to the provincara, a noblewoman whose household he once served, in the hope of earning a position with her and thus, some food and shelter.

Although I read it over a year ago, I still recall this portion of the book fondly. I loved the way Cazaril’s weariness came across, and how, at his most exhausted, he found the courage to try to improve his circumstances by approaching the provincara, though in his humility and modesty, he never expected to reach the heights he ascends to later in the book.

Eventually Cazaril, himself a member of the nobility but also a war veteran fallen on hard times, succeeds beyond his wildest imaginings—and also beyond his desires. He becomes tutor to the royesse Iselle and her lady in waiting Betriz, to whom Cazaril is attracted. Unfortunately this position beings him to Chalion’s royal court, and to the notice of old and powerful enemies who believed him dead.

Cazaril was a sympathetic protagonist, weary but also wise and, despite a great deal of fear, courageous.

I still agree with this description of Cazaril, but I’ll now add that he is perhaps too wise for his years. Though only in his thirties, he comes across as more mature than most people I know. In addition, the description of his gray beard made it difficult for me to picture him as a man still in his thirties, and every time his age was mentioned I got a jolt. I think this may have been intended.

I also think that Cazaril was almost too good and too fortunate. What spares him from the Marty Stu label is that he suffers, and that he has moments of wanting to be selfish, though he always ends up putting his duty to the royesse (princess) Iselle ahead of his personal wants.

The side characters were likewise interesting and appealing, and the writing lovely.

I still like the writing.

With regard to the side characters, I like most of them, especially Iselle and Betriz, but also Cazaril’s friend Palli, Iselle’s brother Teidez’s tutor Dy Sanda, and the mysterious Umegat, keeper of the royal menagerie.

Iselle’s brother Teidez was a character I wanted to see show more growth than he did. I also wanted to see the king (“roya”) Orico display a sign of backbone, but by the end of the book I understood why he as he was.

One of the villains, Lord Dondo Jironal, was a bit too repugnant. His brother, Chancellor Martou Jironal, was a more interesting villain in terms of his personality. I loved the way a character from Cazaril’s past reappears but felt this person was a little too conveniently perfect. For the most part though, the characterization in this book was superior.

While the mythology of the world was not as fascinating as some I’ve come across, it was fresh.

I have to take the first part of this sentence back, because the mythology became a lot more fascinating in the latter two thirds of the book. I especially liked the idea that sainthood is as much a curse as a blessing, as well as the idea that the gods of this world aren’t above humanity, but amidst it, if only people could look the right way and see them.

I was a bit annoyed by the use of terms like roya and royina where perfectly sound words like king and queen could have served, or provincar in place of duke, but appreciated the promise of political intrigue, which I generally like.

I got used to the made up terms, and there was much more political intrigue in the latter two-thirds of the book than in the section I read a year ago. The plotting was impressive, with several twists and surprises, some of which I saw coming and others of which I did not anticipate at all.

The main problem for me was the pacing. This novel was slow. And when I say slow, I mean really slow. Court life was portrayed in painstaking detail with a lot of ominous goings on but few actual turning point events.

The pace sped up considerably as the novel continued, but the slow pace in the first third is my main issue with this book. We don’t learn what the eponymous curse of Chalion is until the 45% mark and I really wish the first third of the book had given me a better idea of what to expect from the rest of it.

My other issue was the ending. Without giving too much away, I felt that Cazaril had a great deal of good fortune, and I might have found the novel more convincing had he died at the very end, after seeing the curse lifted.

The happy ending made me very happy for Cazaril, who deserved every bit of good that came his way. But I can’t help but feel that an ending in which he sacrificed his life would have been more fitting, if sadder.

The last time I tried to read The Curse of Chalion, my verdict was as follows:

This had all the makings of a good book otherwise, and we may even go back to it at some point, but since we’ve moved on to other books it gets a DNF.

This time, I’m very glad we did go back since I enjoyed and appreciated the rest of The Curse of Chalion so much more. This time it gets a B.

Sincerely,

Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

19 Comments

  1. Marianne McA
    Jun 12, 2014 @ 17:14:20

    You’ve made me want to reread these: reading your synopsis makes me realise I’ve forgotten a good deal, though I remember enjoying this (and Paladin of Souls) very much way back when. (The third, I can’t remember at all right now.)

    I reread the Vorkosigan books so often, that I almost forget about the others.

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  2. FD
    Jun 12, 2014 @ 19:21:51

    I had a similar reaction to Cazaril’s age; a slight internal sort of double take. Of the Fivefold universe, it’s my least favourite, I think because of the characters – despite the fineness of their drawing, they failed to resonate with me. Cazaril’s fey youthful/agedness make him a good match with his romantic foil (I’m being elliptical to avoid spoilers) but between them there is a… I want to say naifness? that sat oddly for me with the overt bleakness of portions of the book.
    However, I adore Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt, which take turns as to being the book I find the better, although Paladin generally wins out for dealing so forthrightly with it’s older female subject and the sharpness of the observations and the brightness of Ista’s rage.

    The plot pacing is a Bujold quirk I think, the style doesn’t work for everyone. If you wanted to dip into the universe again, I’d suggest The Hallowed Hunt – it starts rolling much, much faster, and you don’t have to have read Paladin for it to make sense – indeed it’s the closest to a standalone.

    I hope, someday Bujold will write the last two instalments of the quintet.

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  3. Barb in Maryland
    Jun 12, 2014 @ 19:47:31

    @Marianne McA: LOL! I am the exact opposite–I re-read the Chalion books at least once a year. And while I do love Cordelia and Aral, I am one of the small minority who is not an avid fan of the younger Miles. I did enjoy the later Miles books (Komarr, etc), but one reading was enough for me.

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  4. Janine
    Jun 12, 2014 @ 20:18:34

    @Marianne McA & @Barb in Maryland: I’ve only read the first Chalion book and the two Cordelia and Aral books so I’ve yet to finish either series. I remember really liking Barrayar and being less keen on Shards of Honor but that was probably over a decade ago so I don’t know how I’d feel about them today.

    I want to continue with the Chalion series and I hope I can find the time. Marianne, if you decide to reread the Chalion books, do feel welcome to let me know what you thought.

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  5. JewelCourt
    Jun 12, 2014 @ 20:28:20

    I love the Chalion series. I really wish she would write another book set in this world. All three are excellent, but I think I’m in the minority in that my favorite one is The Hallowed Hunt. The narrator of that book, Ingrey, (It’s in 3rd person, but a really tight 3rd that stays with him) is a really locked down, serious person (for good reason), and its incredible how subtly LMB shows his emotional growth. I also really liked the romance.

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  6. JewelCourt
    Jun 12, 2014 @ 20:29:57

    @JewelCourt: I really wish I could edit my post. That should have been “write” not “right”. Blergh!

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  7. Kaetrin
    Jun 12, 2014 @ 21:05:27

    I listened to Chalion and loved it. I find I can be more adventurous with my listening and if I’m going into a book which isn’t a romance, I’m more likelyl to enjoy it this way. The narration was excellent and I loved it.

    I found Paladin of Souls (which I also listened to) to be even better but I think the experience was richer for having read Chalion first because Paladin has Ista as heroine and all the rich background in Chalion was great enhancement for me. I thought the narration for Paladin was even better and it is far more romantic. So it was a win all round for me.

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  8. hapax
    Jun 12, 2014 @ 21:46:58

    Paladin of Souls is perhaps my favorite LMB book (and the Bastard my favorite among the pantheon). I think that Ista is perhaps the perfect heroine for older women: weary, wise, more tempered than damageded, more than a bit disillusioned, but still open to love (and sex!) and courageous in a way that (please forgive me!) the young heros never can be.

    But I still want the Mother’s book. From all I’ve read of the Chalion world, I’m supremely uninterested in the Father. But LMB can always surprise me…

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  9. carmen webster buxton
    Jun 12, 2014 @ 22:51:33

    I prefer LMMB’s science fiction better than her fantasy. I liked SHARDS OF HONOR best of all the Vorkosigan books. It’s like a Georgette Heyer set in the future! I enjoyed CHALION but not enough to want to read more in that universe. The latest Vorkosigan has Miles’ cousin Ivan as a protagonist, and it also has a Heyeresque feel to it; it reminded me just a bit of COTILLION, with the guy who has never been seen as a brain rising to the occasion.

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  10. Kaetrin
    Jun 13, 2014 @ 01:49:09

    @carmen webster buxton: It’s obviously always your choice as to whether or not you want to read another book – but FWIW, Paladin of Souls has a completely different vibe to it than Chalion. It is super romantic. It’s not like Heyer in space (not that I’m an afficionado of Heyer or anything) but it is deeply romantic in a way that Chalion is just not.

    However, I’ve heard, almost universally, that the third book in the series isn’t as good so I don’t really have any interest in reading or listening to it.

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  11. JewelCourt
    Jun 13, 2014 @ 09:21:01

    @carmen webster buxton: @Kaetrin: I really have to put a plug in for the third one (as I said in my previous comment, it’s my favorite). It’s set in the same world as Chalion, but not in the same country and is only tangentially related. I think the reason most people don’t like it is because, as I mentioned above, the narrator is very muted. You really have to read between the lines to get a feel for his character. Often it comes from how others react to him.

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  12. autonomous
    Jun 13, 2014 @ 10:28:47

    I also liked Paladin better than TCoC. I haven’t read Hallowed yet, but intend to pick it up eventually. This particular series reminded me a little of Carol Berg’s books (whose heroes are often wiser than their years, very tortured, etc.).

    I also thoroughly enjoyed the Vorkosigan books, partly because I quite like space opera adventure and partly due to the personalities that emerge in that series. I liked some books better than others, of course, but I think Memory is right up there in my top two or three favorites in that series. I quite adore Aral and Cordelia.

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  13. Surius
    Jun 13, 2014 @ 11:24:12

    I love Bujold – nobody can take Miles’ place in my heart, but I enjoyed this one and “Paladin of souls” a lot. Also agree that third book was not nearly as good – I don’t remember it at all and that always tells a lot to me.

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  14. Janine
    Jun 13, 2014 @ 11:50:36

    @JewelCourt: It’s good to hear you liked The Hallowed Hunt best. Something for me to look forward to after I finish Paladin of Souls. Also, I corrected your typo.

    @Kaetrin You are the fourth person, I think, to tell me that you liked Paladin of Souls better.

    @hapax: And you’re number five. Good to hear that PoS is so great.

    @Carmen Webster Buxton: I think I might be confusing Barrayar and Shards of Honor. The one in which Aral and Cordelia met is the one I really liked. The one that followed was a slight disappointment.

    @autonomous: And another vote forPaladin! I’m going to have to move it up the TBR pile, esp. after what Kaetrin just said.

    @Surius: I haven’t ruled out reading the third one, but we’ll see.

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  15. Janine
    Jun 13, 2014 @ 13:48:14

    @FD: I missed your comment earlier. Maybe it was caught in the spam filter and someone freed it?

    By “romantic foil” do you mean the person Cazaril wanted to be with, or do you mean his competitor for that person? I’m asking because I haven’t heard that phrase before and I usually think of foil is meaning a character with opposite traits, someone who highlights the traits in the character he or she is foil to by serving as a counter example.

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  16. Marianne McA
    Jun 13, 2014 @ 14:44:07

    I’m definitely rereading them: I just have to find them first. Organising the books by colour of spine is v. pretty, and mostly works because I’ve fairly good book-memory. This time, however…

    I’ve turned up The Hallowed Hunt (also The Spirit Ring, which I can’t remember either), but the others elude me.

    Do try the Vorkosigan books again: they’re just great fun. Bujold gets into her stride as a writer as the series progresses. If you can’t face the series, you could perhaps read one or two as standalones – they read perfectly well that way. ‘Memory’ is a favourite of mine, as is ‘A Civil Campaign’ which really is Regency Romance in Space.

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  17. Janine
    Jun 13, 2014 @ 15:00:42

    @Marianne McA: I looked up The Spirit Ring and the alternate Renaissance Italy setting sounds interesting.

    I would like to go back to the Vorkosigan books sometime but it will probably be a while before I get to them since I’m trying to juggle reviews of current books with those of older ones, reviews of romances with those outside the genre, and I’d rather read Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt while The Curse of Chalion is still fresh enough in my memory.

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  18. Greg Strandberg
    Jun 13, 2014 @ 22:10:21

    I don’t think Bujold’s style is for me. I read Curse and also Paladin of Souls. I make it a point to read all the Hugo/Nebula winners, but she just didn’t do it for me.

    Oh well. Lots of people like her. Maybe I should try some of the sci-fi she does.

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  19. Janine
    Jun 14, 2014 @ 09:54:58

    @Greg Strandberg: I can’t say if her science fiction would work for you but I did find it pretty different from this one.

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