RogerBW's Blog

The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold 14 May 2018

2001 fantasy, the first set in this world. Lupe dy Cazaril has been a courtier, then a soldier, then a galley slave, and now he just wants to rest. But the gods meddle in the affairs of men, and to do it they need tools.

This is fantasy for, and about, grown-ups. All right, Cazaril has lost so much that one might take him for a Tom Holt hero, but the struggles here are less between Good and Evil than they are between sensible and childish. Most of the problems are caused by people who want more, and want it now.

And at the same time this is fantasy about gods, and religion, and how they intersect with each other; how religious practice might develop in a world where gods do sometimes visibly act (which in theory is something most fantasy worlds allow, but they usually don't bother to follow through on the implications). Here, on the occasions the gods do reach into the world, they do it through people, and those people are profundly changed by it.

"One need not be good. Or even nice." Umegat looked wry of a sudden. "Grant you, once one experiences…what one experiences, one's tastes change. Material ambition seems immaterial. Greed, pride, vanity, wrath, just grow too dull to bother with."

"Lust?"

Umegat brightened. "Lust, I'm happy to say, seems largely unaffected. Or perhaps I might grant, love. For the cruelty and selfishness that make lust vile become tedious."

All this happens against the backdrop of a well-realised fantasy-Spain that's trying to get serious about its Reconquista. If noble ranks are named things like March and Provincar, it's only a brief distraction from the important business of arranged marriages, noble plots, and knives hidden in every cloak – but also miracles, and black magic, and a multigenerational curse with no obvious means of lifting it. But there are also good people, and smart people, who can do a bit of prioritising and deal with the most serious problems first; and the gods always lurking behind the scenes, and perhaps giving destiny a little poke now and then.

The pace can be quite slow at first, as Cazaril finds himself thrust into increasingly complex situations and discovers that he's not quite ready to dwindle away just yet after all; but even when not much seems to be happening, the writing is interesting enough to keep my interest. The only real flaw, to my mind, is that the principal villain is a little simplistic; there are hints about how he got that way, but they're not followed through as well as they might be.

Followed by Paladin of Souls.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:45am on 14 May 2018

    The implications of 'how the villain got that way' are a little disturbing when one thinks about it. The Five Gods are not perfect or infallible: it's their own mess that they are cleaning up via the hero. A spillage of divine power into the world that destroys and corrupts.

    Cazaril is the delight in the book. I'm especially fond of the moment when he asks himself 'When did I ever volunteer for all this?' and suddenly realises that he put himself in the Gods' hands long before the book starts (no, he doesn't put it that way) and he is working out an old debt.

    PALADIN OF SOULS is very nearly as good as this. The later books in this setting, though good, haven't quite reached this level.

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