The Bujold Nexus

Curse of Chalion
by Baerbel Haddrell

This was previously posted to usenet, and in March 2002 was posted to the [LMB] Mailing List.

Most of my book collection consist of media SF, first of all Star Trek. Only in recent years there have been some exceptions here and there, mostly thanks to recommendations by friends who know what non-media SF a fan like me might enjoy as well. I quickly became a big fan of Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series but nevertheless, I hesitated a long time until I finally bought "The Curse of Chalion". Although I was tempted because of my very positive experiences with the Miles books, this was something very different. I didn't know this universe. I didn't know these people. On top of that, it is a hardcover. Therefore I decided to wait until I could read some comments at Amazon and in this newsgroup. Because they were very positive, I finally ordered it. Nevertheless, I only started to read the book last week because I already had so much to read I was more interested in.

But when I finally spent time with it, it was hard for me to put it down until I finished it. I liked Cazaril immediately. It was somewhat amusing to me to see the parallels with the Vorkosigan series, like the different houses of nobility (ok, it is not the same but something similar) and a hero who also has to deal with serious health problems. Perhaps some people consider this a weakness, it just made this book more appealing to me. Bujold showed me that she can use these elements very well indeed and why should she not write another book using her strengths but with a different twist? I think in spite of the obvious parallels, "The Curse of Chalion" is certainly not a copy of the Vorkosigan series.

There are significant differences between Miles and Cazaril. Contrary to Miles, at first Cazaril had no powerful friends to back him, not to mention a family and fortune. He had to struggle with his serious health problems, extreme poverty and being an outcast in a very hostile and unforgiving society on his own. Cazaril knows one place he can turn to, an influential noble household where he had worked in his youth. Already from very early on in the book Bujold presented Cazaril as a very complex man, an interesting mix of being sensitive and a fighter, a man with strengths but also with weaknesses, a mix I find very appealing. But first of all, from early on I saw Cazaril as a very noble and honorable man. He certainly suffered a lot in his life but although he sometimes came close to his breaking point, he never gave up, never surrendered. Whenever he fell, he always picked himself up afterwards and continued fighting.

His experiences in life add to Cazaril's skill to deal with people, to be a good judge of character. This is the main reason why he made such a good impression when he arrived in this household. He even becomes the tutor and secretary of the young Royesse Iselle, the older sister of a boy, Teidez, who is destined to become the next ruler of the land, and her best friend, Betriz. Cazaril recovers well from his mental health problems, at least he has them now under control, but it becomes obvious from early on in the book that Cazaril will never be a completely healthy man again. Being physically weakened is a serious problem in this medieval world in which the rule of the survival of the fittest applies. But Cazaril compensates for that with his strong personality and his skills. Soon Iselle and Betriz are not only his students with the additional duty to be Iselle's bookkeeper, he becomes their mentor and a close friend. I enjoyed reading about their relationship very much and how it benefited both sides. Cazaril virtually blossomed and the two young, sheltered and somewhat naove girls were given the education and guidance usually only given to boys in that society - if they are lucky. By now, Cazaril has earned the respect and trust of many in this noble household.

But one day Iselle and Teidez are getting an invitation they can't refuse: to move into the Zangre, an ancient fortress which has been the favoured seat of the royas of Chalion for generations, which also includes handmaiden Betriz and secretary Cazaril. Thanks to Cazaril's lessons Iselle is able to understand very quickly that she entered a minefield of intrigues and power plays. She is now able to look beyond flattery and facades. Unfortunately Teidez teacher has been much less successful. The ignorant boy is soon used and manipulated without realizing it.

There is one element in the Chalion universe which makes it an actual fantasy novel. Humanity is watched over by a small variety of gods who now and again meddle with mortal affairs and (usually for a price) sometimes they grant favours. And there is one element in this universe that also very much reminds me of the Vorkosigan series: This is a male dominated society in which women don't have much power. Noble girls are given away in arranged marriages. Iselle is horrified when she is supposed to marry a man she hates and who also only sees her as a means to an end. Cazaril finds out that his options are very limited indeed but there is something he can try: He makes a deal with the gods.

With this Cazaril is becoming aware of a level of intrigues and power struggles that is usually hidden from humans. Cazaril should be dead, but he isn't. His death is prevented by another presence inside him and only after quite some time Cazaril finally understands what is actually going on, what is torturing and apparently killing him slowly. He also understands now that Iselle's family has been cursed for generations and how this curse can be broken. The story becomes very complex and clever now. I was really curious what will happen.

The more the story progresses, the less likely it seemed that Cazaril can survive the book. Finally I couldn't stand it any longer, I peeked, but only in order to see if he is still around on the last page. I found out that he indeed survived somehow, but this knowledge only enhanced my enjoyment of the rest of the book. Instead of dreading to read about his death, I was very curious to find out how he actually managed to survive. I loved the twist towards the end of the book, how Bujold finished the story in a powerful, touching climax. It even offers a happy end for Cazaril, although I find it very fitting that this victory is nevertheless bittersweet. Some very ugly things also happen in the book, including deaths, some of which came as a surprise to me.

Now I am hoping that "The Curse of Chalion" was successful enough so that it could become a series. I certainly would love it to meet Cazaril again!

© 2002 by Baerbel Haddrell
Added to The Bujold Nexus: August 15th 2002

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