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The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
(UK editions: Voyager, £11.99, 442 pages, trade paperback, published 1 July 2002; Voyager, £6.99, 490 pages, mass market paperback, published 3 February 2003. US edition: Eos, $25.00, 442 pages, hardback; August 3, 2001.)

After two years chained to an oar on a Roknari galley, Lupe dy Cazaril comes cover scanstumbling home to the Kingdom of Chalion. Destitute, mutilated, exhausted, this landless man of noble blood wants only to beg a menial post in the household of a great lady where he once served as a page.

Fortune, however, or perhaps one of Chalion's five Gods, seems to intend higher things for him. The lady in question (let's skip the rather silly names Bujold slaps down in place of readily recognisable ranks, and call her a countess), is busily bringing up her grandchildren, the prince and princess of Chalion. The prince is heir-presumptive, the princess follows close behind, and it's to the princess, the lively, impetuous Iselle, that Cazaril finds himself appointed as Secretary-Tutor.

At first all goes smoothly, but princesses and politics go hand in hand, and before too long Cazaril finds himself drawn into the murky swirl of intrigue that threatens to engulf the throne of Chalion and the ailing, weak-willed, King Orico.

There's a scheming Chancellor, and the Chancellor's gross, dissolute brother to fend off. There are hired bravos and sneering duellists. There are mysterious saints, sacred animals, and quaint orders of ecclesiastical soldiers. There's death magic, distant warfare and the looming, implacable power of a malign curse that stalks the royal family down the generations...

The story is certainly well-written. Bujold has a sure command of her prose, and she's constructed a fantasy world of a solid, workmanlike sort, with all the necessary bits and pieces of neighbouring kingdoms, divine pantheons, noble orders, servants and scholars and priests and nobles, neatly slotted into place.

The characters too, are quite strong. Cazaril is certainly engaging; a tough man of the world, with a quick wit, and a generous disposition. He rises to his challenges, but its always a struggle, which makes it worth watching. Princess Iselle is well drawn, as is much of the cast of supporting characters. The villains, unfortunately, ring somewhat less true. They go through the motions of seduction, conspiracy, and attempted assassination, but there's a hint of restraint, a sense that they're not quite as fully realised, or as nasty, as they might be.

What The Curse of Chalion isn't, is particularly original. In overall plot terms it's struck from the same mould as Kate Elliot's Crown of Stars sequence, with plenty of other antecedents from the "Medieval High-Fantasy" corner of the genre. What it also isn't, is up to the standard of Bujold's better-known science fiction work, the Miles Vorkosigan sequence.

Let's think about these two things for a moment.

In the context of a single volume how much can an author do to educate us into the history and mores of a whole new world? Again, take Kate Elliot's work by way of comparison. Elliot provides a genuinely rich and insightful presentation of a medieval society in full flower, with equally lush and detailed examinations of neighbouring, and very alien, cultures. Bujold is giving us just one more melange of elements from the faux-medieval fantasy recipe book. Solid, yes; full and fresh, no.

Then consider the Vorkosigan books, and the strengths they draw from a variety of factors. Miles Vorkosigan always faced the uphill struggle of being a deformed man (physically stunted) in a society that hates deformity; this made the challenges he faced harder, and his triumphs correspondingly greater. Then again, the Vorkosigan books always had a charming (and occasionally hilarious) touch of farce. And too, with a dozen volumes now in print, the series has achieved a depth and complexity that are truly involving.

One looks through The Curse of Chalion for similar strengths, and finds them, but less intensely. Cazaril may be damaged, but he's not handicapped. Sure, he's outnumbered and outranked by his enemies, but that's de rigeur for a fantasy hero. The wit is still there in the writing, with some good dialogue, but there's also a touch of earnestness that tends to stifle humourous possibilities. There's complexity in the plot, and things certainly stitch neatly together at the end, but with slightly weak villains it lacks the necessary tension that would make it a real page-turner.

This is Bujold's second excursion into Fantasy, her first was The Spirit Ring, over ten years ago, where one had much the same sort of experience. Good writing, decent plot, engaging characters, logical, well put-together world... but somehow lacking a certain snap that Bujold has consistently brought to her Science Fiction.

It seems there is another Chalion book on the way (according to her website, The Bujold Nexus), and one wouldn't turn up one's nose at it, by any means... but still, one would prefer it if she spent the same time writing another Miles Vorkosigan book instead.

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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© Simeon Shoul 7 August 2002