Book Review: The Curse of Chalion by Bujold (4 Stars)

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

4 out of 5 stars

Read in February 2009

Warning: Spoilers

This was my first taste of Lois McMaster Bujold and I will definitely be back for me. While the magic was very understated and there were no fantastic creatures or races to mark this as a fantasy, nonetheless it was a fantastic tale of dynastic misfortunes, political machinations and self-sacrificial secretaries.

Cazaril was the embodiment of a humble intelligent man seeking respite from his wearing and near fatal travels. We meet him on the road, walking back to Valendra, fondly remembered from his days there as a page. His hope is to be hired on as a lowly scullery, but fate or the gods, have much grander plans for Cazaril. The Provincara remembers him and assigns him to her granddaughter’s household, Iselle.

Just as Cazaril is settling into his secretarial and stewardly dutes, the Roya Orico, rules of Chalion, bids Iselle and her brother, Teidez, his Heir, to attend him at his court in Cardegoss. They travel to the fortress Zangre, where they are wined and dined by the corrupt courtiers, especially the Chancellor dy Jiornal’s son, Dondo. Eventually, much to the shock of Iselle, Orico forces a betrothal between Dondo and Iselle with a wedding to follow in just three days. Iselle rails against it, petitions heaven, fasts and determines she would rather die than wed the odious Dondo. Cazaril spends the last day before the wedding attempting to assassinate Dondo, but fails to get close enough. He decides instead to attempt death magic, which if successful, would result in the death of Dondo, but also of himself.

Since Cazaril awakens on the morning of the wedding, he assumes that his death magic has been unsuccessful. He returns to his rooms, where he remains due to an unexplained sickness which weakens him almost to insensibility. He is rudely awakened by the Chancellor, dragging the Roya Orico in his wake, and demanding to see Cazaril, whom he is convinced murdered his son by death magic. Since Cazaril is alive, he obviously couldn’t have been the murdered. From this day forth, Cazaril can see strange auras around various people – a black clinging shadow to Orico, his wife Sara, Teidez and Iselle; a white aura around the menagerie keeper, Umgaut; a green order around a midwife of the Holy Mother’s Order; and the foggy gray remnants of forgotten ghosts in the fortress.

After seeing the white aura around Umgaut, Cazaril discusses his predicament and learns that he has become a “saint” of the gods, specifically the Daughter and the Bastard. His illness is a tumor created by the Daughter, encapsulating the soul of Dondo and the demon the Bastard sent to retrieve Dondo’s soul. It continues to grow, slowing, and every night Cazaril hears the screams of Dondo around the time when the death magic occurred, shortly before midnight.

In order to thwart the next move by the Chancellor to further squander Iselle’s marriage prospects, she orders Cazaril to journey in secret to Ibra to propose a marriage contract with the Fox’s heir, Borgan. She proposes that they be equals in each domain and that their heir shall inherit the empire of Chalion-Ibra. The journey is long and arduous, but Cazaril’s wit, cleverness and intelligence wins him through. He negotiates the treaty and returns, again as secretly as possible, with Borgan to Valendra, hoping to outfox the Chancellor’s spies and army.

Within a day’s ride of Valendra, they encounter the army of the Chancellor, but also receive word that Iselle has escaped to her uncle’s fortress nearby. Cazaril and Bergan arrive safely, and Iselle and Bergan are married a few days before Daughter’s Day. Unfortunately, the curse of Chalion not only remains after the consummation of the marriage but has spread to Bergan. Cazaril is chagrined and distraught.

There is not much time to ponder this predicament before the Chancellor invades the Daughter’s Day ceremonies with the intention of widowing Iselle. He is distracted when he sees Cazaril and proceeds to skewer him in revenge for his son. He succeeds only in piercing the tumor, releasing the demon, which takes not only Dondo’s soul, but the Chancellor’s as well. Cazaril’s soul is also caught up in the vortex.

Just as he did when performing the death magic, Cazaril submits completely to the will of the gods, in this case the Daughter, allowing her to enter the world through his death and remove the curse of Chalion. In return, the Daughter return’s Cazaril’s soul to his body, allowing him to live again, having tied twice in the service of the gods and Chalion.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tale and felt the morals of self-sacrifice, humility and submission were well thought and told. Cazaril’s very human struggle, his doubts and his ultimate release of will reminded me of the saying “Let go and Let God” which is much harder to do than it sounds.