The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold is your typical medieval fantasy. There’s magic, and knights, and people in distress and political schemes. On the surface, it doesn’t seem much more than a carbon copy of everything else out there.
However, Curse of Chalion does have a lot to make it stand out from the crowd. Among them, is Cazaril, the protagonist. He is not your typical, heroically minded, buffed-up warrior, handsome features hero. The interesting thing about Cazaril, is that he used to be.
At the beginning of the book, Cazaril is a vagabond. He’s walking from a coastal town to an inland city he spent his youth in, hoping to get a lowly position in the castle he used to work in as a page. He’s not going there because he’s nostalgic, he’s going there because he needs something. For nearly the past decade, Cazaril has been a slave on a ship. He’s been poorly treated, abused, starved, nearly drowned, and mocked. He has just been set free, and now just wants to go someplace where he might be recognized, and live out the rest of his days absent history.
Cazaril used to be a general. He used to be a nobleman, and a hero, and a fearless leader. He was all these things. But then slavery broke him. We root for Cazaril, not because of what he is, but because of what he used to be, and what he’s lost. He’s fallen so far, we can’t help but empathize with him, and for those opening chapters, you can’t help but just want him to find someplace to live quietly.
Fortunately for him, the people at his old castle recognize him, and he’s assigned a tutor position for the sister of Chalion’s next ruler. It pays well, Cazaril gets fed, and he is able to live comfortably. Unfortunately for him, the gods aren’t done with him yet. Slowly, but surely, Cazaril gets pulled into political schemes.
The really great part of Cazaril is his resilience. It’s an odd way to look at someone who’s been broken by slavery, but it’s a real testament to the character. Rather than just roll over, as the schemes get more and more dastardly, he pays more and more attention. He’s not willing to let his young charges be led astray, and many pages are just Cazaril doing his best to keep the situations contained.
Then things get brutal. I don’t want to spoil too much, but Cazaril does something unforgivable in the name of loyalty. Rather than kill him instantly (like it was supposed to), it actually does something completely opposite. But that’s less interesting than the face that Cazaril went into it, knowing full well it would kill him, and did it anyway out of duty.
It really says a lot about him.
If there’s one downside to Caarilz, he has the tendency to wax on and on about his self-sacrifice. Not in a, “You should all be grateful,” way but in a “Poor me,” kind of way. That can get boring really quick. However, this is mostly overshadowed by how he handles pretty much everything else. He’s not a perfect hero. He’s not a great fighter, but he’s smart and clever and loyal. These are the kind of traits one should aim for when writing a truly empathetic character.