Some months ago my daughter, who has never been terribly interested in science fiction or fantasy, asked me if I could recommend a couple of good books in the genres. I loaned her a copy of Crystal Singer and The Curse of Chalion. She never read either one, and I retrieved them on my way home from Florida through Salt Lake after Thanksgiving. Just had the urge to read (for at least the third time) Bujold's novel, so here's my thoughts:
I've mentioned before that there are some authors whose newest novels I don't dare start reading at bedtime, such as Orson Scott Card. Bujold is another one who consistently turns out engrossing and wonderful stories that just demand to be finished - even on a third read.
Lupe dy Cazaril was once a page to the Provincar of Valenda,next a courtier, a disappointed poet, and a soldier. While commanding the fortress of Gortoget during the most recent war with the Roknari, he and his men endured a long siege, which left them with a fine appreciation of recipes for roasted rat. When Caz was finally ordered to surrender his post to the Roknari, all of his men were ransomed by the commander of the Chalionese forces, but his name was omitted from the list - by the brother of a man whose cowardice he had once witnessed.
So, after being creatively tortured for a while by the Roknari, he was sold into slavery on a war galleon, and spent months enduring the hardships of rowing and the cruelty of the oarmasters. When things appeared most dire, he and the rest of the slaves were freed by an Ibran ship which captured the galleon, and executed its crew for their crimes. He was released in the port of Ibra and spent several months having a nervous and physical breakdown at one of the temples there. The clerics nursed him back to a semblance of health, fitted him with some castoff clothing, and sent him on his way.
As the story begins, we find Caz on the road "home" to Valenda, hoping to beg a spot as a scullery worker, in the household of the Provincar's widow. He is granted an audience when he arrives, and she offers him refuge for a time, with food, new clothes (still hand-me-downs, but of a better quality) and a roof over his head. The Provincar's daughter, Ista was once wed to the chief ruler - the Roya - of the land of Chalion, but after his death, she apparently went mad, and has been sheltering at her mother's home in Valenda ever since.
Her children, the royce Tiedez and royess Iselle, are heirs to the throne of Chalion, after their half-brother Orico, the current Roya. Orica and his wife, Sara, have been unable to produce heirs of their own, due to - as you can gather from the title of the book - a curse upon the royal house, which clings like some sort of dark miasma to the royal house and all who are born or marry into it. When Iselle and her younger brother are summoned to court, the Dowager Provincara needs a man she can trust to watch over Iselle, and she charges Caz with being her hands and eyes in the palace.
The story of what happens after they arrive at the castle is filled with wonderfully twisty political and personal motivations, and Caz must not only defend his charge from false friends and suitors, but from the dark urgings of the curse, which takes the virtues of the people it chokes in its grasp and exaggerates them into vices.
Richly detailed, gloriously fun, and filled with the usual well-developed characters and plotting that are Bujold's signature.