“Any man can be kind when he is comfortable. I’d always thought kindness a trivial virtue, therefore. But when we were hungry, thirsty, sick, frightened, with our deaths shouting at us, in the heart of horror, you were still as unfailingly courteous as a gentleman at ease before his own hearth.
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold is a 2001 fantasy novel that was nominated for a bunch of awards, including the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy Award. It’s considered an important part of the fantasy literary canon. I only became aware of its existence a couple of years ago, and this year I finally got around to reading it.
It’s pretty good!
What is it about?
A nobleman engages in some court intrigue.
What is this book like?
It’s a fantasy novel set in a fictional world sort of modeled on medieval Spain. There aren’t a whole lot of fantastical elements. You won’t find dragons, dwarves, elves, orcs, centaurs, and stuff like that in this book.
But it does have gods. Very active, very real gods. I’ve seen this book described as “speculative theology.” It’s an accurate description.
The author has a clear, straightforward style that doesn’t waste a lot of time. If you are looking for pages and pages and pages describing in intricate detail the dishes served at a banquet, this ain’t the book for you.
If you like comparisons in your reviews, The Curse of Chalion has some of the political maneuvering of Game of Thrones (but it isn’t as violent, dark, or complex), combined with the text of a non-existent religion. If that sounds kinda weird to you, it’s because it is weird. It mostly works, though.
The book is written from a limited third-person POV, for those that care about that kind of thing.
What’s awesome about this book?
I described the author’s style as “straightforward,” but I consider that to be a good thing. I don’t have a lot of patience for a bunch of paragraphs describing hills and stuff. However, I do not want to suggest that the author doesn’t set the scene; she still manages to effectively enable the reader to be immersed in the setting.
I enjoyed spending time with the characters in this interesting world. I cared about their well-being, so the conflicts were gripping.
The book does explore some intriguing philosophical questions regarding free will, destiny, chance, fate, and personal responsibility in a world in which deities can and do interact with the world.
What sucks about this book?
The characters are bit black-and-white. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and there’s not a lot in-between.
The author does have a tendency to express the speculative theology stuff in the manner of data-dumps. And when you have gods, you have some literal deus ex machinas.
It’s good, not great. It has good characters in a neat setting with engaging conflict, but it gets bogged down in the middle with a bunch of information-dumps and exposition-bots (you know, the kind of characters that just show up to provide information). Ultimately, I’d recommend it for those that want to explore what the fantasy genre has to offer.
TLDR: Read this book if you:
- want to read a important book in the fantasy canon
- like plots and intrigue
- want to think deep thoughts
TLDR: Avoid this book if you:
- don’t want to read about an invented religion
- don’t like fantasy
- like really, really grimdark fantasy
If you want to try out the setting or the author’s style without committing to a lengthy novel, give Penric’s Demon a shot. It’s set in the same world as The Curse of Chalion, but it’s only novella length. It doesn’t spoil The Curse of Chalion.
My Rating: 5 Stars (really 4.5 but I rounded up).