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REVIEW:  The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

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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REVIEW: Feast by Merrie Destefano

REVIEW: Feast by Merrie Destefano

Dear Ms. Destefano,

I haven’t been an avid reader of urban fantasy for some time. Like many people, I burned out on the subgenre when it seemed like 10 books were coming out every month. That said, I do occasionally check out new releases from new(ish) authors in the hopes of finding something that sounds different. The premise of Feast fit the bill.

Feast by Merrie DeStefanoMadeline MacFadden is a bestselling writer. Or was, until her bigshot Hollywood husband left her for her best friend. Suffice it to say, her personal life is in shambles, leaving her with a massive case of writer’s block. In order to inject some much needed inspiration into her life, as well as a very welcome change of scenery from the watchful eye of the media, she takes a trip to the small town of Ticonderoga Falls where she spent vacations as a child.

But Ticonderoga Falls has a secret. It is ruled by demons. While never named, I assumed they were some form of incubi and succubi by the way they fed on dreams. As the result a curse set upon the town many decades ago, the inhabitants have become the captive prey of these demons, unable to leave and subject to their whimsies. Even worse, the time of the Harvest has come when the demons prowl the streets and feed.

But there’s also a power struggle going on behind the scenes, where another set of demons want to usurp control of the town from its current master, Ash. And who should happen to walk straight into the crossfire but Maddie and her young son.

While reading this book, I was reminded quite a bit of Neil Gaiman. Not just because of Maddie’s character, who writes comic books, novels, and screenplays and has a cult following that track her all the way to Ticonderoga Falls, but because of the way real world and fantasy dream worlds blend and overlap in the setting. Much like in a Neil Gaiman work, Maddie accepts the fantastical without fuss. It’s a change of pace from other urban fantasy and paranormal romances I’ve read where there’s at least one loud and public denial about what they’re seeing.

I liked how the demons were truly demonic. They were not human and they didn’t act human. They viewed humans as prey and treated them as such, sometimes toying with them the same way a cat does with their food. Make no mistake, they had similar concerns as humans: taking care of children, protecting their property, relatives they dislike, but they were monsters and the book never lets you forget that.

I’ve of two minds about the narrative. It features an alternating first person POV between multiple characters. I’m used to seeing this done with two characters, but Feast does it with at least 5. In the end, I think it worked out but I felt that the constant switching at this length may have skimped out on some character development. For example, the main antagonists read as very two-dimensional to me. While I did think their motives were very believable, not enough meat was given to their storyline to elevate it beyond a power grab.

The romance subplot, if you can call it that, between Maddie and Ash didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I never really understood why Maddie found Ash attractive, especially after she realized what he was, nor did I ever come to believe that Ash saw Maddie more than as prey. Part of this, though, might be because if I found out I was in a town filled with demons, I’d have gotten the hell out as fast as possible. Or, at the very least, when I stumbled upon a dead body, only to have it disappear when I bring the cops. Maybe that’s just me. Of course, if Maddie had done that, there would have been no story.

While I thought this novel required me to suspend my disbelief more than it should have, I like the idea of it. I picked it up expecting yet another urban fantasy but discovered it gave me something. I think there are some sections that are more reminiscent of horror than of fantasy, and I enjoyed those creepy bits. At the very least, this has made me more curious about your work and I will be checking out Afterlife shortly. B-

My regards,
Jia

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