The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The first time I read this, I was torn between my respect for Bujold and the slow burning plot of this first fantasy I had ever read by her. It didn't hurt that it was nominated for the Hugo, as she had been nominated over and over, winning several for her classic SF series, but I was like, "What? Fantasy? But she's so excellent with SF, why switch?" And then when I started reading it, there were none of the fast-paced elements or larger than life characters that I expected.
In fact, other than the fact that Cazaril was a broken man like Miles, he was pretty much Miles's opposite. Steadfast, principled, not attention seeking, reflective, Cazaril is the definition of Loyalty To Another, self-effacing willing to sacrifice himself for a much greater good.
The house of Chalion is under a curse, after all, and even after Noble Cazaril's capture and having been turned into a slave, his subsequent escape, and reinsertion into his natural household, he's still a conflicted and broken man in body and in spirit. All he really has to hope for is supporting his liege-woman.
This is NOT an action fantasy. Indeed, it's nearly spiritual in all the divine revelations. There isn't much magic, but don't worry, the true delight is in the messes that the Five Gods make of the world. The Bastard's death magic is particularly harrowing, and it happens to have the largest role and plot significance in the novel.
The other fantastically creative part of this novel is it's devotion to characterization. Bujold has always been a master at this, and while this particular novel seems to be a large departure from what we have known, we get through it feeling as if every character is as real as our own loved ones, we handle and are horrified by all the political intrigues and machinations, doing our absolute and not-quite-sufficient best.
I feel a lot of sympathetic love for Cazaril and the characters that he loves. Being broken is not the end. It's difficult and painful and horrible, but even in his darkest despair, he still managed to keep being wise, even in his (several) self-sacrifices?
How many main characters can you say that about? That the plot wasn't driven by a main character's stupidity? Exactly. This is SUBVERSION OF THE FANTASY TROPE. :) lol
This is a methodical and expertly-paced fantasy, but don't expect it to be flying. It's very careful.
But... the rewards are truly awesome. :)
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