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.
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.
Ooh, thanks. I should have thought to look that up rather than speculating at LJ. I'm quite proud that I spotted it. I know what you mean about having a reflex dislike for Isabella; I have similar difficulties with people who get romantic about Vespasian and Titus! But I have at least a minor association in my mind with Isabella as the great unifier of Spain, so I could pick up the connection.
I think the Spanish-ness is mainly the conlang, but also having a bunch of small kingdoms some of which are landlocked and so on. I didn't notice about the hemisphere, I'm not sharp enough with geography for that sort of thing. Cool, though.
I too have been repeatedly encouraged to get off my arse and read LMcMB - it will happen one of these days, but I'm always glad of further confirmation that her books are Worth It. Not finished my Mary Gentle yet, tho.
I think if you like high fantasy at all you'll very likely get on with The curse of Chalion. Which Gentle are you reading? I like her a lot, but she does tend to the verbose, so I'm not surprised it's taking you time to finish!
I thought I'd said good things about Bujold to you; can't recall if I mentioned Chalion, I'm very fond of the Miles books, modulo the series being somewhat uneven and the very best bits being spearhead to things that need one to have read eight books to really appreciate, which seems a bit much to push on you. I liked Curse of Chalion a lot save that the resolution of the magical dilemma was really obvious to me form pretty much the moment it was set up.
Also, I'd not call it "high fantasy", because I am used to "high fantasy" specifically meaning a story of a certain shape that involves saving the world from a Dark Lord, rather than being applicable to secondary-world fantasy in general.
Oh, it's likely that you were among the people who contributed to a general positive feeling about Bujold. It may be that you spared me a direct recommendation because of knowing my views about excessive series.
Genre terms: I thought secondary world meant specifically the structure with a framing story in this world, where the characters go through some kind of magic portal to a more magical plane? I agree with your definition of high fantasy, but I thought saving the kingdom from a divine curse counted as more or less the same story shape as saving it from a dark lord.
Oh, I do like the fact that cartesiandaemon has come up with something that lots of my flist have read, that way I get much more discussion. The sequel to The curse of Chalion is Paladin of Souls, right? I shall surely look out for it. Thanks for your suggestion about the Vorkosigan space opera books too, that's good to know.
I strongly do not recommend starting with Borders of Infinity, the stories contained within, while very good, are at places through the series that work a lot better with more background for the characters IMO.
Shards of Honor or The Warrior's Apprentice are IMO the best places to start; it's also worth noting that in the last few years the books have started coming out in omnibus editions with weird names and hideous covers.
I recently read the 3 books in that series because my boyfriend is quite fond of them, mainly because of the portrayal of the gods. If you read the next two, it gives you more of a view of the religion, and it really is a nicely designed religion - believable without being a direct copy of a standard religion.
Religion: Oh yes, it's one of my favourites. In retrospect it's not as consistent as I'd thought it was. But it truly (and wonderfully) shows a religion where the Gods are real and relevant, but theology is still tricky, and how the Gods have distinct personalities, but you can't say any were right or wrong, but empathise with them all.
Protagonist: That's a good point, it hadn't occurred to me how it would be from another point of view.
World layout: I don't know, but I bet you're right, it's exactly the sort of thing she would do. That might explain why there isn't a map. Her first novel was fantasy, and more interesting than good in my opinion, but that drew in alchemy in mediaevel Italy, but quite subtly.
Yay. *bounce* Thank you again for lending me this, it's brilliant!
I think it's actually a good thing that the theology isn't consistent, because any self-respecting theology isn't. This isn't even about some mystical woo-woo ineffability excuse, it's just that a reasonable theology has to contain a theory of human nature, and no-one's come up with a truly consistent one yet.
I do like the fact that the gods are characters in the story, but they're still obviously divine beings, not just really powerful superheroes as can often happen with fantasy religion. Also, it rings true that having gods who are more obviously interventionist than in our world doesn't stop theology from being tricky. It isn't that hard to figure out how to achieve spiritual enlightenment, but people don't take those steps because they don't actually want contact with the numinous. That is very nicely portayed in The curse of Chalion, and it can be hard to do because at first glance, it would seem that if a fantasy religion is obviously true by authorial fiat, then everyone should follow it.
If you look at the other comments, it seems that Wikipedia confirms my guess about the historical and geographical roots of the story. And yeah, good reason not to put a map in, though I think if you reversed the standard compass, and didn't put in the modern borders it might be subtle enough. Or at least no easier to guess than it was anyway from the text.