Bujold is a titan in fantasy and sci-fi literature, as august and as celebrated as Le Guin or Heinlein, and it rarely ends well when I try out a new (to me) author with so much preconceived expectations of greatness. One almost invariably meets with disappointment. Almost. And I said almost because Bujold absolutely delivered and then some. I had almost no idea what The Curse of Chalion, the first book in the World of the Five Gods series, is about so I went in blind. We begin by following the story of Cazaril, a broken soldier in his thirties who, in the first chapter, was in such mean straits that he had to resort to scavenging clothes off a bloated corpse. He was the commander of a besieged fortress, and when his side surrendered it to their enemies and his men were ransomed, he was maliciously left off the list and sold into slavery. Now that he managed to escape bondage and walk all the way back to his homeland, all he wanted was to seek service in a noble household he once served and pass the rest of his life unnoticed in reasonable comfort, and to die in obscurity. The gods, however, have other plans for poor Caz.
The gods’ most savage curses come to us as answers to our own prayers. Prayer is a dangerous business.
They say the best that literary fiction has to offer is insight into the human condition. I say that the best sort of fantasy fiction offers the same, but also magic. The Curse of Chalion has plenty to say, and it says them in a quiet but authoritative voice. I think there is place for cynicism and grayness in storytelling, but I appreciate tales that celebrate earnestness, loyalty and compassion as well—perhaps more so, as I believe it is harder to write sincerity than it is to deride it.
Any man can be kind when he is comfortable. I’d always thought kindness is a trivial virtue, therefore. But when we were hungry, thirsty, sick, frightened, with our deaths shouting at us, in the heart of horror, you were still as unfailingly courteous as a gentleman at his ease before his own hearth.
And Cazaril proves that a good and sincere character need not be boring. When a friend of his praised him for being incorruptible and indifferent to wealth, Cazaril quipped: “No, I’m not. I just dress badly. I quite like wealth.”
While magic and miracles plays a huge role in the story (and in fact, a lot of the more meditative moments in the book revolves around faith, divine destiny, and redemption), the central narrative revolves around the royal children that Caz was charged to teach and to protect as they became entangled in deadly games of court intrigue. The table-setting is ponderous and meticulous, and reading the first third of the book requires some patience but when Ms Bujold started moving the pieces she carefully set, it was exhilarating. Something expected or unexpected is always happening, forcing Caz and company to act and think on the fly against enemies who are better provisioned than them when it comes to politics. Complicating matters is the titular curse that hung over the royal family and the kingdom, which threatened everything Caz holds dear. What Cazaril lacked in guile, he more than made up for it with sheer determination and selflessness—and I am glad that in this book, those virtues count for a lot. There have been a lot of recent events in the world and in our country that have eroded my faith in humanity, and The Curse of Chalion is precisely the sort of restorative I need. George R. R. Martin had Ned Stark beheaded from the beginning to set the tone of A Song of Ice and Fire: which is that honour and goodness are weaknesses, not strengths, in the struggle for power. Bujold politely disagrees.
While the books in this series are nominally linked, The Curse of Chalion functions quite well as a standalone. Novels impress me most when they introduce fresh ideas to me which have never occurred to me, or if they manage to tell a well-trodden story very, very well. The Curse of Chalion belongs to the latter category. Ms Bujold’s prose is effective without being sparse, and her characters are very easy to like and to root for. The story and plot are masterfully presented, with every element building up to a superbly satisfying ending. I heard that the next book Ms Bujold set in the same world, Paladin of Souls, is (by some estimation) an even better work. If that is true, I think I am in danger of finding a new favourite author.