With only The Spirit Ring under her belt as her sole previous venture into fantasy, Lois McMaster Bujold veered away from her ongoing Vorkosigan saga to deliver what is arguably not only her best novel but one of the best and most mature works of medieval fantasy in recent memory. In the hands of a writer as skilled as Bujold, it all seems so easy. It isn't that there's anything particularly innovative or envelope-pushing about this story. Bujold simply makes smart use of the strongest aspects of the genre while avoiding its most obvious and clichéd pitfalls, and she writes up to a literate readership rather than down to a juvenile one. Throughout, Bujold gives a number of familiar fantasy tropes — the roles of magic, gods, fate, and duty — the kind of good intellectual workout that rejuvenates them and makes them seem fresh and exciting. Like such writers as George R. R. Martin and Jacqueline Carey, Bujold approaches the fantasy novel as a cryptohistorical novel; her antecedents are closer to Dorothy Dennett and Mary Stewart than to the epic fantasy norm.
The Curse of Chalion introduces us to Lupe de Cazaril, the scion of a noble family of the titular kingdom. War blights the landscape. Nearby Ibra is wracked by civil war, and Chalion has been duking it out for some time with the invading Roknari, whom they have pushed back to a handful of coastal princedoms. Cazaril himself is the victim of treachery. Sold out as a galley slave to the Roknari by a personal enemy, the traumatized Cazaril has only recently escaped as the novel opens, and is making his way to the castle of Valenda, where he worked as a page during his childhood. There he hopes only to wangle himself the most menial of jobs.
Arriving at Valenda, his reception is more than he could have hoped. The Dowager Provincara recognizes him and honors his noble birth, and is appalled by his tragic story. Soon Cazaril finds himself a welcome and valued member of the household, eventually appointed to be the personal secretary-tutor to the Dowager's granddaughter, the Royesse Iselle. Iselle's brother Teidez is next in line to throne of all Chalion itself. But all does not seem well at Valenda. Iselle and Teidez's mother, the Royina Ista, is rumored to be mad; at any rate, she seems to be perpetually ailing from some malaise or deep depression no one can explain.
When Teidez and Iselle are summoned to the castle of Cardegoss, whispered rumors hint that the sickly Roya Orico may be on his last legs, and that Teidez's assumption of the throne must be imminent. Orico's wife is strangely barren, and her afflictions seem similar in nature to Ista's. Cazaril accompanies Iselle to court somewhat anxiously; Orico's father, Martou dy Jironal, is the father of Dondo, the swine responsible for selling out Cazaril. Things begin to take a bad turn when Martou gets the easily manipulated Orico to agree to fast-track a marriage between Iselle and Dondo. It's a blind grab for the throne itself that Iselle and Cazaril both see clearly, but Dondo and Martou have been successfully winning the confidence of Teidez, who remains naïvely blind to their real agendas.
Still emotionally and psychologically scarred by his recent POW slave experiences, and deeply vindictive towards the dy Jironals for their role in it, Cazaril takes a bold step and utilizes some proscribed magic to thwart the marriage. But when the results are slightly different than expected, Cazaril finally — and quite literally — begins to see exactly what has been going on with the royal family of Chalion, and what his role might be in saving not merely Iselle, but the entire family and kingdom.
The most striking feature of The Curse of Chalion's narrative is Bujold's use of her world's theology to drive the increasingly complex machinations of the plot. Talk about setting your own rules and then following them! Bujold is a master at avoiding the fantasy novelist's most common storytelling mistake. Bujold incorporates the gods (there are five) into her storyline in a way reminiscent of Greek myth; like the Olympians, Bujold's gods are arbitrary, capricious, all too human, and yet purposive and compassionate. But contemporary religious traditions offer much influence as well. Cazaril's role as the man broken in body and mind only so that the gods can redeem him is an archetypal one familiar to Western readers in the Judeo-Christian legends of Job, Abraham, Jonah, et al. Indeed, Cazaril's act of magic to save Iselle, involving both death and resurrection, is brazenly Christ-like. I haven't really seen theological concepts dissected in such an interesting way in a fantasy novel. This is saying something, considering that my mailbox is frequently infested with fantasy novels from small-press Christian publishers. But those books merely repackage Biblical themes in fantasy window dressing in order to preach to the choir; they never really go beyond a routine reworking of good-vs-evil to explore the actual role of theology to a culture.
All of Bujold's attention to such themes would count for nothing if she didn't give you characters to love and feel for in the context of a gripping adventure story. And here Bujold saddles up and brings forth all the showmanship and expertise she's honed through over a decade's (and three Hugos) worth of Vorkosigan novels. There is simply nothing here to complain about. Even though Cazaril is the putative hero, supporting characters are no less heroic. Iselle, f'rinstance, is one of Bujold's most remarkable heroines. In a refreshing riposte to the usual vulnerable damsel-in-distress role that romantic princesses are required to play, Iselle becomes assertive and even politically savvy in the face of her plight. The notion of a political arranged marriage is one that romance writers have their virginal nubile martyrs react to by throwing themselves on their beds in weeping fits while awaiting their dashing knight to crash his steed through a window in a breathtaking rescue. Bujold says "fuck that" to such Harlequin histrionics and has Iselle arrange her own marriage to counter dy Jironal's plans. Pretty realistic, considering Iselle comes from a culture not our own, one in which political alliances are what royal marriages are for. A princess who expects to survive the circling sharks would have to be on top of such things.
Some readers might find the shift in Bujold's typical writing style, from the easygoing wit of the Miles saga to a highly formal language more suited to old-school historical novel writing, to be excessively stuffy and serious, unnecessarily difficult. But I never found it inaccessible, and I liked the way Bujold made a conscious effort to give The Curse of Chalion a distinct identity. There are some slow stretches, to be sure, but nothing to lose you. In all, The Curse of Chalion is a powerful and memorable piece of storytelling from one of SF and fantasy's most important talents. It's an epic fantasy for the ages.