I first read this book over a decade ago, years before I started this blog. It’s been on my shelf ever since then, a gift from charles_midair and elaine_alina. I loved it then, and was just listened to it on an old iPod borrowed from fritz_et_al (it also seems to be one of the popular choices for fantasy collections on Overdrive, the largest library ebook platform). I was rather astonished at how vague my memories of the story were, the story just as good if not better the second time around.
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. Read by Lloyd James. Lord Cazaril was once a castle-warder and a military captain. Now he is homeless and broken from brutal treatment on a Roknarri slave ship. He’s walked across Chalion on foot to get to the Provincara of the country estate where he was a page in his youth. He’s hoping for a place in the kitchens; instead, he is assigned to tutor the Royina Iselle, sister to the heir of Chalion, and her companion Betriz. Iselle is full of sixteen years of innocent passion and belief in justice, of the type that causes her to publicly expose a judge for suspected fraud. After a few months of trying to teach the girls diplomacy and caution along with the languages and geography of the surrounding countries, Iselle and her brother Tadez are both summoned to court. The king, their older half brother, is weak and ill and wants them to become familiar with courtly living. Unfortunately, returning to court for Cazaril also means facing the very men that Cazaril knows deliberately sentenced him to the galleys, now the king’s trusted advisers and the most powerful men in Chalion. Cazaril’s loyalty is tested to the utmost, as he becomes literally bound up with the curse that he learns is on all of the royal family of Chalion. He asks for the help of the Gods, and the Gods make it clear that they wish to work their will through him – if only he can figure out what their will is in time to save Iselle and Tadez. It was impossible not to hope for Cazaril not only that he would find his way through his dilemmas, but also that he could find a way to hope for a future for himself beyond his duty.
Despite being a book filled with bad things happening to good people, the story isn’t depressing. There’s love and beauty and plenty of humor. Politics are part of the driving force of the plot, but there are only a handful of major players to consider, so it doesn’t get confusing. The book is filled with interesting characters, including Royina Ista, Iselle and Tadez’s mother, and the Roknarri divine of the Bastard (see below) who works, oddly, as the head groom in Roya Orico’s private menagerie. Actually, the gods are major players as well, allowing the plot some literal Deus Ex Machina moments. I suppose I can think of a handful of other fantasy novels where religion and theology play such a major role, but I really enjoy Chalion’s unique religion, somewhat similar to and yet different from earthly paganism. Chalion and a few of the neighboring countries are Quintarian. The five gods are the Mother, the Father, the Son and Daughter (each assigned to a season of the year, sexes, and stages of life), and the Bastard, who watches over bastards, people of non-mainstream sexuality and events out of season. The Daughter of spring, Iselle’s patron, and the Bastard are the most featured in this book. Several other neighboring countries are Quadrenes, who do not hold the Bastard to be a god. Naturally, both sides hold the other to be heretics, and it echoes into politics as people who are natural followers of the Bastard flee from Quadrene countries to Quintarian. Though I’m condensing it here, the theology comes up naturally through the story as it is lived. Really the whole world is set up just as well, without long expository sections. This is top-notch fantasy, with something for everyone. Lloyd James has just the right voice to pull off the battle-weary Lord Cazaril, if the voices of the two girls sound just a little young for young women who are definitely taking charge of their own destinies. My love and I both separately listened to and very much enjoyed this.
P.S. What does this cover depict? Can anyone figure out if it is related to anything that happens in the story? It looks to me like a generic fantasy painting put on the book without any regard to the actual content. The cover shown for the ebook version was even worse, featuring, of all things, a large dragon.