Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

December 17, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Back when I was plowing through most of the available Miles Vorkosigan books, essentially the only thing Lois Bujold published before Curse of Chalion, I used words like “light” and “fun” to try to convey the low-impact nature of the books. Bujold was not trying to dazzle the reader with amazing ideas, postmodern style, or gutwrenching emotion, she was just spinning a fun story. Some of the series’ later books flirted with emotional resonance. I hoped that by leaving Miles and indeed SF itself behind, Bujold was going to aim a little higher.

Well, no. Chalion is technically fantasy, but as I categorize things it is an intrigue novel. There aren’t a lot of swords and sorcery, just schemes and plots. If you like such things, this might be good beach reading. It’s competently written and ruthlessly predictable. The Evil characters are utter caricatures. The Good characters are so blandly good, perhaps so as not to offend any possible reader, they threaten to bore. The world building is kind of standard…the only feature of the world that approaches being unusual is the religion, which is extremely simple.

Thinking after I finished, I decided that Bujold is a character author. She has a genuine liking for her protagonists. Too much of a liking to put them through anything truly difficult. To be sure, the main character, Cazaril, has a relatively interesting backstory. He’s not of the sword-swinging school (although, infuriatingly, Bujold succumbs to the temptation to make him a skilled fighter regardless) and though a member of the nobility he has no direct power. Instead, he has a hand in great events by working for others. In that sense, the book reminds me slightly of Hobb’s Farseer books. I say slightly, because those books might as well be in a different genre. Hobb is a much better writer (this is no slight on Bujold, who–aside from her earliest work–is solid, it’s just I consider Hobb to have about the best technique fantasy has to offer) but more importantly she writes very hard books. By hard, I mean she pulls no punches emotionally. Her characters face genuinely terrible situations and suffer enormously. Because Hobb is such a good writer, the reader empathizes and suffers too. So while I think the Farseer books are great, I must concede that at times reading them is like going to the dentist. It’s good for you, but it can be hugely uncomfortable at times. I say all of this by way of comparison because compared to those sorts of books, Curse of Chalion is a confection. It is utterly painless. Though the characters go through privation and even seem despairing, none of it ever seems serious and sure enough, it passes quickly. Even though this book was a much easier read than the Farseer trilogy, I’ve already reread the trilogy once and expect to do so again. I don’t think I’ll read this book again. I recommend it if you enjoy intrigue, really like fantasy, or really like Bujold’s other work. If you don’t like the idea of a painless confection, give it a pass.

Before I go I want to complain about one aspect of this book which, though hugely obvious from the get-go, might be considered a spoiler, so if you haven’t read it and plan to do so, you might want to stop reading. Towards the end, two characters (keeping this vague in case of wandering eyes) have a fairy tale romance. That’s fine, but the man is in his mid-thirties and the woman is twenty. Now there isn’t anything technically wrong with this, and certainly in a faux-midieval world it would be common, but I felt this was rather dubious on the part of the author. Somehow, I get the feeling the author felt the ending wouldn’t have been as happy if the character had had a fairy tale romance with a woman his own age. Or, god forbid, a woman fifteen years older. Since the author is a woman herself (not to mention middle-aged) I can hardly accuse her of the male wish-fulfillment that still pollutes science fiction and fantasy, so I’m rather perplexed. My only explanation is she wants to make the ending as satisfying as possible for the reader and figures male readers consider the ending much better if the guy gets paired off with a young woman. This lack of faith in the readers, while probably justified, is kind of dispiriting.

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