Saturday, July 15, 2006

Book Review: The Curse of Chalion

Lois McMaster Bujold, of course, is the author of the Miles Vorkosigan series, a character-driven science fiction series about a dimunitive but incredibly bright member of the Barraya clan. Her Vorkosigan series are definitely brain candy of the type that you can't possibly put down even if you wanted to.

Here, Bujold ventures into the realm of fantasy writing and her character-driven approach is even more appropriate her than it is for science fiction.

Cazaril is a broken man: a former military general who was betrayed and sold into slavery, he barely escaped with his life and walked back to the province where he was raised to ask for a position, any position. He does not seek revenge for his betrayal; he is just hoping to stay clear of court politics. To his chagrin, he is given the job of tutoring the young princess Iselle, who is hot-headed and righteous. When the princess is recalled to the capital along with her brother the heir apparent, Cazaril is drawn back to the politics he was trying to avoid, and finds himself embroiled in affairs of state that turn out to be far darker and sinister than the mere betrayal of his trust.

The novel is a great page-turner after the first section, as history, theology, and the motivations of all the characters are teased and weaved together tightly. Then as the big reveal (what is the Curse of Chalion) happens, the reader is challenged to see if he can unravel the plot before it becomes obvious. To my satisfaction, the apparent red herring turns out to be an essential clue, and though the ending is somewhat obvious, it was not a giveaway. (There was a gratituous happy ending that was obvious to anyone --- Bujold obviously loves Cazaril, that much is obvious)

The criticisms: the lead character is just a bit too perfect. A tutor who used to be a page, a fighting man, and a military general who now has no ambitions of his own, Cazaril is just a little too self-sacrificing to be truly believable. The classic scene comes when he bargains with the leader of a foreign land --- when offered gifts and bribes, he turns them all away, saying that he's got a tumor in his stomach and is going to die anyway, so the bribes are worth nothing to him.

Nevetheless, a good read, one of the best of the year.
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