Pulling no real surprises, The Curse of Chalion is straight-forward high fantasy, complete with princesses, prophecies, and magic. It does, however, manage to rise above the mediocre due to its strong prose, characterization, and by having a theme that is not often directly tackled by high fantasy.
Highly reminiscent of Guy Gavriel Kay, The Curse of Chalion is set in an eponymously named kingdom based on medieval Spain, with he plot running the gamut of life in a royal court. Despite being a fairy tale at heart, the main storyline centers on one man’s sacrifices for what is good and proper in the world. The main protagonist, Caz, gives his life to the princesses closest to him, offering them protection from the selfish, power seeking individuals who desire the throne for themselves. The princesses are not without their strengths, however, being key contributors to their own fate through shrewd political maneuvering. Into this game of power Bujold injects perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book: an interactive religion. A mix of Christian and Greek ideals, the five gods—a family, in fact—oversee Chalion and are succored through gifts or prayer. From the title of the book comes the story’s impetus: a curse has been placed on the kingdom, rendering ill luck to the rulers of Chalion, and in turn a prophecy has been made that only after a man has given his soul three times will the curse be lifted. Though there are pertinent digressions, Caz’s effort to satisfy the prophecy is the engine driving this tightly drawn plot.
Caz’s plight likewise provides the thematic content: free will vs. divine intervention. How Bujold handles this is not black and white and is one reason why this book is better than a lot of other high fantasy. And thus, despite standing on the softer, gentler side of the genre, The Curse of Chalion is not without action and suspense and would appeal to anyone enjoying medieval-esque court drama with a strong thematic core centered on free will and determinism.