Bujold is of course extremely well known for her science fiction: her mantelpiece must groan under the weight of all those Hugos. Yet this particular reader -- and it's perhaps an embarrassing confession -- has always had deep reservations about her sf novels. They have seemed to be no more than enjoyable light entertainment: books to be picked up and read quickly, mildly enjoyed, then forgotten about just as quickly. If some of them have a deeper-rooted agenda, then they have been among the ones this reviewer has not encountered. Nevertheless, the decision of a writer of such prominence in the sf genre to work in the high-fantasy genre is an event of some significance; moreover, the very softness of themes that characterize to their (debatable) detriment the sf novels might be a positive advantage when deployed within genre fantasy.
Well, yes ... and no.
As the book opens we encounter its central character, Cazaril, making his way on foot from the distant land of Ibra back to his homeland of Chalion. A soldier by profession, he is now a disfigured, frail remnant of his former self, having spent a while in the brutal environment of the Roknari galleys, into which he was betrayed by the vile Jironal brothers. When he gets back to Chalion he discovers that the elder of those brothers is now Chancellor and virtual proxy for the ailing king, Orico. In short order Cazaril finds himself detailed to escort Orico's half-siblings Iselle (girl) and Teidez (boy) to Cardegoss, Chalion's capital city, for Orico has fathered no children and so Teidez is the heir presumptive. Cazaril and his charges are immediately pitched into all kinds of derring-do, for the Jironals plan to take over the kingdom...
I've been using words like "king" pretty freely here. I shouldn't have indulged in this sloppiness. Because this is a fantasy, Orico is called not a king but a "roya". His queen -- oops, another taboo word -- is a "royita", while Iselle and Teidez are, respectively, a "royesse" and a "royse" rather than the princess and prince you might take them for. Such silly tricks of vocabulary, presumably utilized solely in order to persuade us that the story is occurring in an imagined, fantasticated otherworld rather than the real one, are actually profoundly irritating: they reach their nadir in the universal use of the word "nuncheon" to describe a meal that takes place around the middle of the day...
The reader does, in fact, need rather a lot of persuading to believe that this is a fantasticated otherworld, because great stretches of the novel seem rather to be set in the sort of haphazardly remembered history still lingering in the mind of someone who's read superficially about the Middle Ages a long time ago -- a very long time ago, and perhaps only in the pages of Reader's Digest.
One could of course say much the same about 99% of other generic fantasy novels, some of which are excellent fantasies for all that; but here it is particularly obviously the case because there's not a great deal of fantasy to divert the attention. Indeed, with an exception that could be explained as a matter of the characters' belief rather than as a manifestation of the supernatural, the fantasy part of the novel doesn't really get started until about page 175, over one-third of the way through this long novel. Bujold's focus up until that time has been on the burgeoning romance between Cazaril and the scrummy Lady Betriz -- a high-born virgin half his age -- and on setting up the various intrigues and character-clashes that will drive the rest of her tale.
The romance aspect should be stressed. This humble reviewer has long maintained that most of the high fantasy published today should be considered not as part of the fantasy genre at all, but as a subgenre of the romantic novel. The Curse of Chalion fits this classification to a tee: it is stuffed to the gills with the tropes of the romantic novel. There's another significant romance in the tale, but, sticking with that between Cazaril and Betriz for now, we have the classic older-and-somewhat-disabled-man/younger-woman scenario in which neither, for several hundred pages, dares come out into the open and Speak Their Love. Anyone for Jane Eyre...?
The fantasy elements, when they do finally shuffle to centre-stage, are actually quite a lot of fun. The younger and viler Jironal brother, Dondo, is foisted onto Princess (dammit, I mean Royesse) Iselle as a husband, as part of the Jironals' plans for domination. The thought of wedding and bedding him makes Iselle puke. Loyal Cazaril decides to stop the marriage by use of "death magic": this involves persuading one of the five gods, the Bastard (I'm not being pejorative: that's the god's name, and it's one of the brighter features of the book that this be so), to send a demon to scoop up the soul of the enemy and cart it off to hell, the only trouble being that the demon always takes the soul of the magic-worker at the same time and to the same destination. Cazaril, however, survives the experience, thanks to the unwitting prayers of Iselle, but Dondo's soul ends up quasi-tumorously in Cazaril's belly, as does the demon, where both make their resentful presences felt. Thereafter Cazaril has a form of second sight that enables him to see not only ghosts but the auras of others who have been, like himself, god-touched ... including the dark, malevolent auras that shroud all members of Chalion's ruling family, who inherited the curse of the book's title when one of their ancestors used the death magic to save the kingdom.
Of course -- I'm giving away no secrets here, for this is a romantic novel -- Cazaril foils the surviving Jironal brother's ambitions, lifts the curse and gets the gal.
If the destination of the tale is predictable, what of the journey to get there -- its telling?
In keeping with the vocabularistic tricks referred to earlier, Bujold also often makes use of ye olde antiquated vocabulary and grammatical constructs in order to keep reminding us that we're in fantasyland. Aside from that, however, the telling is delightfully slick (no criticism intended): The Curse of Chalion is a genuine page-turner, primarily perhaps because the character of Cazaril, unlike most of the others (there are some nicely portrayed minor characters, though), is so well delineated -- in fact, one could almost say that it is concern for Cazaril's fate that keeps the pages turning rather than his adventures themselves.
Viewed as a light entertainment, then, The Curse of Chalion is a definite success: it does everything a romantic adventure novel should do, and does it well. Yet is it really a fantasy?
Obviously the answer is "yes" in terms of the shelf in the bookstore where you'll find it placed. But otherwise? That's a lot less certain. Throughout my reading of The Curse of Chalion I was constantly reminded of Judith Merkle Riley's excellent novel In Pursuit of the Green Dragon (1991). The point is that Riley's novel is a historical fiction: essentially it is a yarn rooted in genuine history. It does, though, have fantasticated elements (the "green dragon" of the title is an alchemical reference, for example), but these fit well alongside the more straightforward elements. What made my mind revert so frequently to In Pursuit of the Green Dragon was that Riley's historical novel has in fact as much fantasy in it as has The Curse of Chalion. The only real difference is that Bujold's tale is set not in a real history but in a cobbled-together one where kings are called royas. In effect, she has written a historical novel without all the pain of doing the necessary but boring research.
So you pays yer money and you takes yer choice. As a jolly way of whiling away a long train journey, The Curse of Chalion will amply, and expertly, satisfy you -- it could even keep you up late reading in bed long past lights-out, as it did this reviewer -- but if it's fantasy you're after you'd be better off looking elsewhere; and the same, obviously, is true if your taste is for historical fiction.
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© John Grant 3 November 2001