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The Curse of Chalion    by Lois McMaster Bujold order for
Curse of Chalion
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Wesley Williamson

This is just the second fantasy written by the multiple-award-winning author of the wildly popular SF series starring Miles Vorkosigan. It is totally different from her first, The Spirit Ring, in every way. That novel was based on a cleverly devised Renaissance Italy not too divergent from the reality, if only magic had been an integral part of the culture. Otherwise, it was a lighthearted romantic adventure, extremely well written, and extremely easy to read and enjoy.

The Curse of Chalion is, almost needless to say, equally well written, but not such easy reading. The mood is darker, the world more deeply layered, and the characters much more complex. There is a love story, but it is far from simple, though in the end deeply satisfying. The principal character, Cazaril, after heroically leading the defense of a fortress under siege, is betrayed by his own leaders and condemned to life as a galley slave.

After he has survived for nearly two years, Cazaril's attempt to protect a recently captured youth from rape results in his brutal flogging. He is close to death when the ship is attacked and captured, and he is rescued. Deeply scarred in body and soul, he makes his way back precariously to the noble household of the Dowager Provincara, where he spent his boyhood as a page. He hopes to obtain a position, any position however menial, where he can rest at peace.

The Dowager remembers him well and takes him in, but not as a menial, and his hope for peace and quiet healing has to be abandoned when she names him secretary-tutor to the Royesse Iselle and the Lady Betriz, her companion. He soon finds that Iselle and her brother, the heir to Chalion, are menaced by the same enemies who betrayed him, and that the House of Chalion is weakened by a curse which has descended through the generations.

This is a world overshadowed by dark gods and goddesses, whose impact on human affairs seems careless and sometimes malignant. The understated heroism not only of Cazaril, but of the Royesse Iselle and others, stands out in bright contrast. As I have said, this is not an easy book; it is subtle, layered and complex; it is also deeply rewarding. I hope that Lois McMaster Bujold's SF fans will follow her into this darker world.

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