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The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
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This book came highly recommended, so maybe it's inevitable that I was disappointed. As far as fantasy goes, it's somewhat above average, but still didn't really do it for me.

The Curse of Chalion follows its nontraditional hero, Cazaril--a man in his mid-thirties who's failed at most of his endeavors, and is recovering from a stint as a galley slave--as he becomes tutor to the princess Iselle and helps her navigate the waters of a treacherous court. The story is driven more by character than plot; political maneuvering is crucial if not very complicated; there's a bit of fighting but this is not a combat-driven fantasy. There is a sequel, but fortunately this book works well as a standalone.

First, the good. The plot and characters are reasonably original. (I especially liked the idea of a princess arranging her own marriage to someone she'd never met, an interesting and actually empowering take on the standard girl-fights-arranged-marriage plotline.) The quasi-Spanish setting is fun and different (although it needs a map). The religion and its rituals are well-thought-out, and what magic there is fits well into the religion and the story without taking center stage. And the writing style is credible.

Now the not-so-good. Except for Cazaril, the character development is uniformly shallow. For the first half the book, Iselle and her lady-in-waiting Betriz are virtually interchangeable; it felt as if Cazaril fell for Betriz rather than Iselle merely because this served the plot better. Minor characters are one-note and at times just plain silly. The most ridiculous was "the Fox," whom we're told is a tough and conniving negotiator but in actuality is almost comically bad at it; in one scene he actually sounds "panicky" when the other party threatens to leave--the oldest trick in the book, and despite the fact that if he had any sense, "the Fox" would have realized that he had the upper hand in the situation.

Meanwhile, parts of the plot come together far too conveniently or stretch credibility (like how Cazaril could have avoided being told the identity of a certain important person). Worst of all, at the end Bujold cheats: a textbook example of trying to have your cake and eat it too. Everything is tied up in a neat little bow more suited to children's fiction than an adult novel.

But ultimately, I think this book depends on the reader's emotional connection to Cazaril. I wasn't particularly attached and have the feeling that may be why the book left me cold where others loved it. I wouldn't tell people not to read this book, just that it's nothing amazing and was not my cup of tea.
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