Saturday, 16 November 2002

Lois McMaster Bujold: The Curse of Chalion (2001)

Edition: Voyager, 2002
Review number: 1131

With The Curse of Chalion, Bujold takes a break not just from her long-running and acclaimed Vorkosigan series, but also from futuristic science fiction; it is a fantasy novel with a background more or less traditional for the genre.

The novel begins with Chalion aristocrat Cazilar returning to the land of his birth; betrayed into slavery by a corrupt general, he has recently escaped from the galleys of Roknari, and now his only ambition is to see if he can persuade an old patron to take him on in a menial position in her household. Instead, he is made tutor-secretary to her granddaughter, and becomes involed in the complex politics of the Chalionian court - where he has to meet the enemy who betrayed him.

The Vorkosigan series has already shown that Bujold excels at the creation of political thrillers, and she uses the same skills here, with different characters and background. She is just as interesting and convincing writing about magic as she is discussing cloning. This particularly story is very self-contained, not only unusual in a genre which runs to trilogies and series, but also in contrast to Bujold's other work. A sequel seems unlikely, but maybe we can hope for more stories set in this world.

A lot of science fiction and fantasy contains depictions of political intrigue, an inevitable part of writing about fictional societies. The problem tends to be that it is easy enough to invent and describe institutions, but rather more difficult to portray plotting and machination convincingly. This actual human interaction behind the scenes is really what politics is about. (This is partly because real world equivalents are usually kept as secret as possible, so that it requires considerable insight to recreate convincingly, particularly in an alien setting.) One fairly common mistake that writers make is to continually describe a character as some kind of political genius, while making them achieve coups which are comparatively simple minded; this may flatter the reader but is not really very impressive when they reflect on what has been described. (Frank Herbert, who is particularly associated with the introduction of politics into science fiction, is sometimes guilty of this error.) Bujold's politicians are much more believable and her strengths in characterisation mean that she doesn't have any need to resort to this spurious trick.

Her novels also always have an exciting plot to draw the reader in. In other words, her novels are top rank political thrillers, and The Curse of Chalion is no exception. Once again, Bujold has produced a novel which tempted me into staying up into the night to finish it.

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