Zoë Marriott lives on the east coat of England with two rescued cats, a spaniel known as The Devil Hound, and a growing library of over 10,000 books which will eventually bury her alive. Her first young adult novel - The Swan Kingdom, a fairytale retelling based on Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Wild Swans' - was written when she was only twenty-one, and published when she was twenty-four, going on to become a USBBY/IBBY Outstanding International Book. She has since had three more critically acclaimed young adult fantasies published, and was the recipient of the Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon, a Cinderella re-telling based in fairytale Japan. Here Zoë writes about Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion.
Zoë Marriott on The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
I first read this novel when I was twenty years old. A decade has passed since then, and I've probably re-read it at least once a year since - but I have never forgotten, nor will I ever forget, the way that the book made me feel the very first time I explored its story. I love it so much that I make sure always to own at least three copies. That way I can give it away to people at a moment's notice without being deprived of still owning it myself.
It's a fantasy novel and the setting is very like Renaissance Italy. The protagonist is Lupe dy Cazaril - a soldier riddled with scars not only on his body but on his soul. We join him as he is painfully limping his way back to his home country in hand-me-down charity clothes, with nothing more than a single copper penny in his purse, intending to beg a place at the hearth of a great household where he once served as a page. Cazaril has been a soldier, a courier, a courtier, a spy, and a castle warder, but at the last he was undone by political chicanery and, when the castle he guarded fell, was sold as a galley slave instead of being ransomed. A terrible time of suffering and hardship ensued and although he escaped with his life Cazaril is a broken man. He craves nothing more than peace and quiet and no more pain. It's clear from the outset that, like a terribly wounded animal, he is intending to find a quiet place to curl up and die.
But Cazaril isn't dead quite yet, and in the land of Chalion - where the five gods (the Mother of Summer, the Father of Winter, the Daughter of Spring, the Son of Autumn and the Bastard, God of the Unseason) walk alongside men on the other side of a barrier thinner than breath or perception, there is still work for him to do. A great work that only he, with his great, scarred, wounded soul, can achieve.
Many exciting, shocking, romantic and terrible things happen to Cazaril - and all the characters - in this marvellous book. The writing is lyrical, and the writer has that oh-so-rare knack of expressing complex ideas and thoughts (which would take me three paragraphs to unravel) in a single pithy line. She also has a turn for illuminating the remarkable in the everyday domestic details of life, and the dark, seething underbelly of the seemingly ordinary. Lupe dy Cazaril is truly one of my favourite fictional characters of all time. But that isn't the reason why this book has remained my favourite for so long.
Let me ask: have you ever listened to a piece of music called Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis? It's holy music, most likely composed in the time of Elizabeth the First. A composition for the voices of young children lifted in breathtaking joy and exultation. The voices trill and blend and fight and come together again in an exquisite mixture of chaos and order; it's so complex that I can't imagine how any choir can ever get it all right, but when it is done right... oh. It's beautiful. All humans are made, in essence, of starstuff, and I sometimes wonder if the starstuff still calls out to us. I can never listen to that piece of music without feeling that I've heard a faint - a very faint - echo of the music of the universe. Of the song of that makes stars and solar winds and planets dance.
The Curse of Chalion makes me feel the same way. It makes me feel, every time I finish reading it, as if just for a moment I've caught a glimpse of something, even if it's too vast for me to truly understand. And even if the feeling fades away after a little while, something of that sense of the underlying order of things always stays with me now. It is a book that transformed me at twenty and hopefully will still move me at age ninety. I highly recommend it.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]