Review- The Curse of Chalion

61886The Curse of Chalion
by Lois McMaster Bujold
496 pages
Published 2000

From Goodreads: A man broken in body and spirit, Cazaril, has returned to the noble household he once served as page, and is named, to his great surprise, as the secretary-tutor to the beautiful, strong-willed sister of the impetuous boy who is next in line to rule.

It is an assignment Cazaril dreads, for it will ultimately lead him to the place he fears most, the royal court of Cardegoss, where the powerful enemies, who once placed him in chains, now occupy lofty positions. In addition to the traitorous intrigues of villains, Cazaril and the Royesse Iselle, are faced with a sinister curse that hangs like a sword over the entire blighted House of Chalion and all who stand in their circle. Only by employing the darkest, most forbidden of magics, can Cazaril hope to protect his royal charge—an act that will mark the loyal, damaged servant as a tool of the miraculous, and trap him, flesh and soul, in a maze of demonic paradox, damnation, and death.


My Thoughts

I came across The Curse of Chalion while wandering around Barnes and Noble one summer day some years ago. I was in the midst of a reading slump, having finished up the latest volumes of the various series I was reading. I was having a hard time finding new titles to read, as at the time I was stuck to the fantasy genre and read very little outside of it. But it had come to a point where new series/trilogies just weren’t appealing to me. It seemed like everything was either overly formulaic or trying too hard to be original. I’d picked up a variety of standalone novels and been utterly unimpressed with any of them. So I didn’t have very high hopes when I came across this little paperback book with a shiny gold cover.

The synopsis was interesting, though it sounded like most of the others, which promised world- or kingdom-ending consequences if the protagonists failed in their missions, but they rarely delivered on those promises. So I bought the shiny little book, took it home, and cracked it open.

I was hooked from the very first page.

There aren’t many openings that can paint such a vivid picture of a world, the people who inhabit it, their culture, and establish a fascinating main character within the first few chapters, but Bujold accomplishes just that. From the first few pages, you understand Cazaril and his motives. He begins the story as a broken man, recently recovered from injury and illness after his enslavement at the hands of his country’s enemies. While he wants nothing more than a quiet life, he is given the job as secretary-tutor to a teenaged princess. He must teach her about the world they inhabit and how to survive the deadly game of court politics, even as he strives to keep his enemies at bay as he seeks a way to end the curse that hangs over the royal house of Chalion.

It’s a daunting task. Writers with less skill than Bujold would spend several books explaining the world of the five gods, letting the details bog down the plot until it turned into a multi-book saga no one wants to read. But Bujold is better than that. She can paint a picture of a far away county with a few deft strokes and provide a wealth of sensory detail without chattering on about inconsequential bits. Bujold’s story is so engaging that she needs only mention the orange blossoms once or twice to fill your imagination with the scent.

The characters, too, are so fleshed out that they feel real. I don’t need to imagine what actor might play Cazaril. His oft-maligned and patchy beard is as perfectly imaginable as the determined look on the Royesse Iselle’s face, or Lady Betriz’s dimples. Everyone, from Cazaril on down to minor characters is believable, even the villains. The dangerous dy Jironal brothers are treacherous in their own way, but never become the mustache-twirling, melodramatic arch-villains with a master plan to take over the world. Their motives are just as human as everyone else’s, their vices and virtues as recognizable as their own.

“This wasn’t prayer anyway, it was just argument with the gods.
Prayer, he suspected as he hoisted himself up and turned for the door, was putting one foot in front of the other. Moving all the same.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion

Religion plays a major role in the story. Unlike many fantasy stories I’ve read, you don’t have a God of Death, a Goddess of the Harvest, or a God of Trees or whatnot (or, as Eddie Izzard might say, “Jeff, the God of Biscuits and Simon, the God of Hairdos”). The Chalionese religion suffuses the lives of its followers, regardless of their piety. Just like the Christian church did in the medieval world (and still does, to a great degree). There are temples to all five gods, a religious hierarchy, and living saints. There are sermons and prayers, holy days, funeral rites, and marriage customs. The people offers prayers and offerings, and while some do it with true faith guiding their actions, others merely pay lip service.

And when a god appears to someone, that person undergoes a fundamental change in perspective. To brush up against the divine is to be forever changed.

This notion– that gods are beyond anything the human mind can truly comprehend– is not something that often comes up in fantasy novels. Often, when a god is mentioned at all, he/she/it seems to be altogether human in their perspective. Their wisdom is often that of a college professor- like someone who has read more books than anyone else. Their influence is direct and obvious, like the Dungeons and Dragons cleric who prays for a resurrection spell and is granted it.

The Chalionese gods are more ambiguous. Did the Lady of Spring guide Iselle when she lit the first flame during the Daughter’s Day rites, or did Iselle manage to light the flame on the first try because she is young and has steady hands? Did the crow fly to Cazaril because he’d been feeding it, or did the Bastard guide the crow? These questions come up, but it’s impossible to answer them for sure because the divine is ineffable. Only a living saint can see the proof of a god’s hand, but being a saint in Chalion is to be marked as utterly different.

Bujold’s prose, too, sets The Curse of Chalion apart. It is lyrical at times, or philosophical; economical when it comes to Chalion’s history, and sarcastic when Cazaril is feeling snarky. It is never clunky or clumsy. It’s light enough on its feet to dance around the reader, but never gets so full of itself that it leaves the reader behind.

“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 his ease before his own hearth.”

“Events may be horrible or inescapable. Men have always a choice – if not whether, then how they may endure.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion

There are few books that I declare to be favorites after the first reading. It often takes multiple readings for that declaration. The Curse of Chalion took one of those top spots in my heart from the first. I take great care with my books– I want them to last forever– but my shiny gold paperback copy is starting to fall apart. The front cover is slowly coming away from the spine and I fear the first couple of chapters will go with it. While I have a digital copy, I don’t think it will be long before I go in search of a new, physical version.

The Curse of Chalion doesn’t show up on many ‘Top Ten Fantasy Novels to Read This Summer/Winter/Before You Die’ lists, and that’s a shame. It doesn’t have bold print “New York Times Bestseller” tag on the top, and it’s not new enough to have a flashy book trailer. No one is making a movie or TV series from it. Come to that, I can hardly find it in bookstores. If you can track it down, though, or download an eBook version, it would be well worth your time and money. Cazaril is a different kind of hero from any other you’ll find. His story is complex, beautifully written, and utterly engaging.

 

Review- Red Sister

25895524Red Sister
by Mark Lawrence
469 pages
Published April 4, 2017

From Goodreads: I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin.

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.

Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive


The teenage-girl-assassin theme feels likes it’s all over the place these days. Or it might just be because a few books get all the press, making it feel like it’s all over. I don’t know. I haven’t read All The Books, so maybe it’s a new trope that I’m only brushing the edges of.

I had much higher hopes for Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister than I had for Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass since I’ve heard nothing but good things about Lawrence’s books.

“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.”

– Mark Lawrence, Red Sister

An opening line like that carries with it a promise of a strange story. Who would want to kill a nun, and why would you need an army to do so? The nuns of this story, of course, are not the sort we would think of today, in crisp black and white habits. The sisters of the Sweet Mercy Convent are trained as warriors, whether with weapons or with magic, and it truly takes an army to bring one of them down.

The nuns’ training takes ten years to complete, and it is at the beginning of this process that we meet Nona Grey, one of the newest and certainly the bloodiest novice at this peculiar convent. Nona has secrets. A lot of them. They’re what took her from her home, nearly to the gallows, and finally to the relative safety of the Sweet Mercy Convent.

I say ‘relative safety’, because, in spite of the Sisters’ abilities, danger swirls around the nuns and their students. From day one, the girls’ lives are in danger while the abbess plays a risky political game. Through all this, Nona must learn who to trust– and when.

It should be disturbing to read about girls as young as ten learning how to kill people. They’re children, after all, and should be taking lessons about reading and writing, but the world of Abeth and the Corridor in the ice is a brutal one. Their sun is dying, the ice is encroaching, and powerful men don’t care if the target of their vengeance is a skinny little girl. To keep themselves alive, these girls must learn the tricks of their deadly trade. Sending a young girl off to learn the assassin’s trade is obviously not a new thing. In both Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass  and Robin LaFevers’s Grave Mercy, the worlds those heroines face are also dark and dangerous. But Mark Lawrence succeeds with Nona where Maas and LaFevers failed with Calaena and Ismae because Nona is a flawed character. She is young and naive, though she thinks she understands the world because her life has been hard. She has trouble making friends, and she has trouble with her lessons. She assumes things about other people that  aren’t true, and then she acts on those assumptions- often with terrible consequences. In other words, Nona acts like you would expect a girl to act in her shoes. Lawrence lets his main character act like an idiot and be beaten (and take a beating), then lets her pull herself together and learn from her mistakes. Just like a normal person would.

I think that letting your characters fail is one of the marks of a great writer. It’s easy to fall in love with one of your characters. They start to feel real after a while, and it’s hard to let them be humiliated. Who wants that to happen to their precious creation? But if humiliation (or injury or even death) are what the story demands, then that should happen. I didn’t think Nona was going to die, but there were times where I wasn’t sure she would come out the other side of whatever trouble she found herself in. Or something could have happened to one of the other girls, like Hessa, Ara, or Clera. There was a constant tension– whether it was a childish rivalry for another girl’s attention or a fight to the death– that kept me fully engaged in the story. I hated to put it down and came back to it as soon as I could.

The rest of the elements are expertly handled, as well. The worldbuilding is completed in multiple ways, and the way it is presented feels perfectly natural. Nona, being an uneducated child, must learn about the world she inhabits and so the reader learns along with her. There is the sense that this is a very old world with a complex history, but Lawrence never delves into a hundred generations of begats, nor does he have his teachers drone on about this king or that. The politics are introduced as Nona sees them and while they’re important to the story, they’re often secondary to it. The relationships between the girls drive the events, not some far away Emperor’s pronouncements.

And while I’m mentioning relationships, I’m going to turn back to the characters because the relationships the girls in the Sweet Mercy Convent have are wonderfully realistic. They’re a disparate group of girls with differing skills and strengths, flung together almost at random. They share sleeping quarters, meals, and sometimes clothes, and while this draws many of them into lifelong friendships, it pushes others apart. There are rivalries to match just about anything in Game of Thrones, and hard lessons about friendship and trust.

Another important thing? There is no love interest. There are no love triangles. Nona isn’t some great beauty from the wilderness, just waiting for someone to wash off the dirt and give her a pretty frock to turn her into the pretty, pretty princess of the prince’s dreams. That falls to one of the other girls before the issue of beauty is dropped on the wayside behind their training. The girls don’t have time to stress out over tangled hair and make-up. Nor do they have the energy or inclination to worry about boys. Not that they would have boys to pine over in an all-female convent, but they’re aware of boys, of marriage, and of the things that men and women do together. But there’s no romantic love in this book, only the love between friends, a relationship that is all too often cast aside when a hint of romance enters the picture.

As dark as it can be, Red Sister is an incredible book. It’s plot structure, world-building, characterizations, and writing are hard to beat in the dark fantasy genre. I started reading it a little after midnight on Monday and finished it on Tuesday afternoon. It’s a rare book that is so enthralling that I will spend all my spare time reading it, and Red Sister is one of the few.