Details: (c) Lois McMaster Bujold 2001; Pub Voyager 2003; ISBN 0-00-713361-8
Verdict: The Curse of Chalion is a magnificent high fantasy tale.
Reasons for reading it: I'd been meaning to get into Bujold for ages, since everything I'd heard about her made her sound cool. And then I was swapping book recommendations with cartesiandaemon (which is a highly satisfying way to start a relationship!) and it turns out that he's a big fan, so that bumped my vague intention up a few notches of priority.
How it came into my hands: cartesiandaemon lent it to me *bounce*
The curse of Chalion is really everything fantasy should be. It's a roaring good story, full of drama and twists and consistently exciting for 500 pages. The characterization is great, a large cast of characters all of whom are believable and interesting. The world building is top-class, really detailed and original. I particularly loved the religion; unusually for fantasy religions, it has both social facets and a believable sense of spirituality, and it's not just Christianity or Wicca with the serial numbers filed off. It's just a lot of fun to read.
The viewpoint is very interesting. I like Cazaril as a protagonist, both because he's a great character and because the princess' tutor isn't an obvious viewpoint to pick to tell the story of saving the kingdom from black magic. If Iselle had been given the viewpoint, the book could have fallen into cliche, and she might have been a bit of a Mary-Sue, being beautiful, intelligent beyond her years, unexpectedly inheriting a throne as a teenager and using her position to resolve major political and magical problems. But Cazaril is aware of her flaws, and there's a much better sense of her coming of age than there would be if the story was told the obvious way. I also like the way that although Cazaril is a special Chosen One, this is handled extremely subtly and doesn't play out in at all the expected way.
If I have a crticism at all, it is that the factions are a little unsubtle. There are a pair of obvious Villains, who nevertheless manage not to be too melodramatic or evil-overlordish, they good guys defeat them by being intelligent and lucky, not because they are stupid, so I'm fine with that part. But everyone else is either obviously in the pay of the villains, or obviously trustworthy. I think the book would have been improved by a bit more sense of court intrigue and paranoia. I suppose the treatment of the gods makes up for this a bit; there is plenty of ambiguity about their benevolence. It's a big plus that nobody is immune to misery or plans failing to work out or getting unfortunately killed; the fate of Umegat I found particularly effective.
tCoC is a thoroughly modern fantasy, not that it's anachronistic, I think Bujold does an exceptionally good job of avoiding that sort of trap. But it seems to exist in a context of being aware of what is wrong with run of the mill sword-and-sorcery, and fixes some of those problems without in any way undermining the genre. For example, the handling of gender, sexuality and the range of romantic possibilities are very nice, without making any polemic point about being so edgy and having queer characters, or too crudely applying 21st century morality to a quasi-Mediaeval setting. It seems to fall into a similar category to Gaiman's Stardust: it is absolutely straightforward fantasy, nothing clever or ironic or iconoclastic about it, but a superlatively good example of what it is. darcydodo, if you haven't read this, you should, you'll love it, it's just your sort of book!
Am I right in thinking that the story is somewhat based on the real world history of the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella? I don't know where I got the idea that the royacies are the pre-unification Spanish kingdoms, Darthaca is France, and Roknar is Arab North Africa, but it seemed to fit. I think I would have appreciated a map, especially as it is very much the kind of book that has a map on the first page.