Nathan Barnhart (Skynjay) is one of three reviewers for Fantasy Review Barn. Though he read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books as a kid, he didn’t really get into the genre until a few years ago, at which point he started reading any speculative fiction he could get his hands on. If not reading or playing with his kid, you can find him at the rec getting beat in basketball.
This is another example of me finding a book that it feels everyone else already knew about, raved about, and left me wondering why the hell I have not read it before. The Curse of Chalion is my first reading of Lois McMaster Bujold, but will certainly not be my last. Here is an author who knows how to play with pacing, keeping the duller times in the character’s lives interesting somehow, but providing occasional action scenes that don’t lack either. Even better, in my mind, the very strong pacing and plot is outdone by the strength of the characters.
There really isn’t much the author didn’t do just right in this book. The book is the story of Cazaril, former soldier, former rower on a slave ship, and at the start of the book, a penniless man hoping to beg a job from a family he served earlier in life. Hoping for any job at all, he is surprised to be offered a job as secretary/tutor to Royesse Iselle, second in line to the throne. Doing his best to remain inconspicuous, he finds himself dragged into the political arena. Even worse, he becomes aware of a curse hanging over the whole family, and may be the only one who can remove it.
While the titled curse could be considered the main plot line of the book, it is but one important thread followed throughout the story. Equally important is Cazaril coming to terms with his importance, Iselle working hard to make her own path, and a decent game of political maneuvering that affects everyone in the family. Throughout the entire story religion plays a strong part, with ample proof that the five worshiped gods are real and active, though they are in no way omnipotent. I am personally a big fan of well-crafted religious stories, which is one more plus for this book in my mind.
The book’s biggest strength is the characters. Being the story of Cazaril, the narrative never leaves him, a rare third person narrative with only one POV. Sold out before the story began, he was not ransomed at the end of a long siege and was hardened by his time as a slave. He may seem too good to be true in some cases, but for the most part he is a reasonable portrait of a man who wants to be a good man, and whose actions reflect that. He excels at a great many things, but has some noticeable failures as well, keeping him away from the Gary Stu territory.
Iselle is likewise a wonderful character. She shows signs of spoiled princess early, but it is quickly shown that that is only the case if a person goes in with preconceived notions. In reality she is very intelligent, with a desire to learn more. She has some of the rashness of youth, which leads to some hard moments for Cazaril. When she decides to take her life’s direction into her own hands she does so with quick decision making backed by strong research. I loved her throughout the book.
Another example of a well done character is Iselle’s companion, Betriz. She has many strengths, but the reason I point her out is how well she worked as a love interest. When rejected she acted realistically; that is with disappointment but not falling into grief. (Teen fantasy is often criticized for lots of true-love angst, but I have found a lot of adult fantasy falling down the same hole, which is why this is so refreshing to see).
The book’s main villain may have seemed a bit too evil, but the curse realistically shows some of the reasons why. And though he may be evil, he is just as smart and calculating as Cazaril.
I also found the pacing and writing style to be very well done. Not a lot of extra flourish, and by sticking with one character it was one long transition between scenes. Only a few minor nitpicks here. Not an action book, the action scenes did lack for some excitement, but luckily were not the core of the book so it mattered very little. Travel was also inconsistent, with some journeys taking an appropriate amount of time, while others went so fast it made the land seem like it was only a hundred miles across.
It would be hard to talk about the politics or religion without spoilers, so I’ll only point out that both were done well. The politics were a bit simplistic, and there were some things that seemed like coincidences that may throw some readers off. But the influence of the gods is constant, with some of the coincidences being literal dues ex machina. This may be the best made up religion I have read about since Firethorn.
So, good strong story, great characters, interesting religion, simple but entertaining politics. The only flaw I really saw was in fairly weak action sequences, which were not even the point of the story.
4 stars. Really enjoyed this one.