A case study in how a great writer can craft a ploddingly slow story with a tortured protagonist, and somehow make it readable and downright entertaining.
The Curse of Chalion is largely a story of political intrigue, with all the requisite exposition and long setup. For the most part, very little happens in the first half of the book.
But I still found it engaging. Caz, the protagonist is a minor nobleman, who went off to war in his "youth," was betrayed and found himself a slave, a rower on a galley. When he is finally rescued from that situation, he is a broken sickly shell of his former self. Wanting nothing more than to retire to a simple life, he returns to the only home he has left, a noble household where he was once a page. He's hoping for a nice, menial job, but is instead given the job of secretary and tutor to an impetuous noblewoman named Iselle. Despite his misgivings, he find he enjoys the job, especially after meeting Iselle's lady-in-waiting Lady Betriz.
All is going well until Iselle's brother, the King, summons Iselle to court, a scenario that puts poor Caz back in the limelight and into a confrontation with the person who betrayed him. But running away isn't an option, since that would leave his young charges at the mercy of the machinations of his enemies. And so, though broken and terminally ill, Caz sets out to do whatever it takes to protect Iselle and Betriz; stabilize the kingdom; and break the curse that's the cause of all the chaos.
You might think, given his situation, that Caz would be a whining insufferable twit. Instead, he's surprisingly lighthearted and often hopeful, his dialogue, internal and external, being rather witty. At times, he seems a little too good to be true, too self-sacrificing, but it's hard not to root for the guy. The very light romantic subplot is sweet, maybe a little too light for me, but it kept me turning the page, wondering how in the heck Caz could possibly get a HEA with Betriz, when the odds are stacked sky high against him.
As you'd expect with a veteran writer like Bujold, the world building is solid and logical. A good part of the plot is driven by the interesting theology of Chalion which deepens the sense of place, making it seem all the more real and immersive. Female characters in The Curse of Chalion, notably Iselle and Betriz, are strong and actively engaged in the plot (no damsels in distress).
Recommended for fans of character-driven fantasy.