The Curse of Chalion - Lois McMaster Bujold I haven’t read Bujold for a while. I’ve forgotten what a consummate master she is. From the first page, the story pulled me in. Every little detail is necessary, prompting further development. Every turn in the road drives the plot forward. The author builds her rich and complex world gradually, without resorting to an info dump, through the eyes and mind of her single POV character – Cazaril.
Widely educated, gifted in literature and music, warfare and diplomacy, Cazaril has been a top ranking officer, loved and respected by his people. He rose rapidly through the ranks, rubbed shoulders with the highest aristocracy in the country, commanded a company and ran a castle, until a vile betrayal catapulted him into the nightmare of slavery.
The novel starts three years later, when Cazaril, freed by a lucky chance before he died as a galley slave, stumbles along a muddy track towards the land of his youth. Broken and sick, with no home and no possession, he wants only piece. He doesn’t wish to rise to his former glory. Instead, he dreams of a warm hearth and a place to heal. The peak of his aspirations is the position of a kitchen scullion. At least, it’s warm in most kitchens, and the food is free.
But his fate isn’t done with him yet. Instead of a humble menial job, he is appointed, unwilling and doubtful, as a tutor-secretary to the young princess Iselle. Once more in his life, he is thrust into the poisoned whirlwind of court intrigues and divine machinations. And his powerful enemies aren’t too happy to see him alive. He has no choice but to navigate the murky waters of magic and politics, because if he missteps this time, his young student would suffer too, along with the entire kingdom.
In addition to Cazaril’s mundane troubles, the gods of the land have interest in him as well. Just like their earthy counterparts, they want Cazaril to lay down his life for them, submit utterly, body and spirit, and do their bidding. And he complies. WHY?
Of course, he saves his student-princess in the process and even gets a pretty maiden and a high councilor’s office as his just rewards, but those fruits of his toils are just little cherries. They can’t sweeten the bitter monstrosity of his handlers’ demands. Why does he allow both the gods and his human employers to control his actions? Why doesn’t he renounce them both to claim his own life?
I admire Cazaril’s determination to do the right things, to teach, to fix, to help. What I don’t understand is his motivations. Why does he erase himself so completely? Why does he submit to the terrible suffering on behalf of those who treat him like a servant? They don’t give a damn for his welfare; for them he is just a tool. Why does he keep on serving them?
One of the most complex and most charming characters I’ve ever had the privilege to read about, Cazaril is bright and infinitely kind. He cares for people and strives to understand and forgive everyone. He is so clever I want to applaud the little pearls of wisdom he scattered among the pages. And I’m indignant on his behalf. Where is his self-respect?
Of course, it speaks of the writer’s storytelling talent that I regard Cazaril as a real man and want to boost his self-esteem. I want to open my home and my purse to him. I think Bujold went over the top inventing Cazaril’s unending agony. He deserves better. And although his misadventures make for an absorbing read, and I rated this book with 5 stars, I won’t re-read it. It upset me. I want Cazaril to have a vacation from his troubles.