I’ve often heard of Lois McMaster Bujold, but have never been tempted to pick up one of her books until I read Jonathan’s review of the Curse of Chalion.
I’m immediately drawn to fantasy novels in which religion factors greatly. It’s not something I often see in the fantasy novels I read. Often, religion is a slight thing in the society and not a major part of the world building. It certainly doesn’t often affect magic, unless it is to denounce the use of magic. However, in the Curse of Chalion, magic is greatly influenced by religion and the gods.
I really enjoyed this book and it’s now one of my favorites, which means I went overboard with this reflection piece. It’s long ass fuck. Skip to the Overall section and read some of the quotes for a quickie.
The Curse of Chalion is a high fantasy novel told using a limited third-person narrator from the perspective of our protagonist, Lupe dy Cazaril, a former soldier and courtier who returns home to the provincar of Baocia (basically a dukedom) mentally and physically scarred after his serving aboard a Roknari slave galley. Roknar is a country to the north of Chalion.
When the story begins, Cazaril is on his way to visit the dowager Provincara of Baocia to seek a place to work and live and be relatively safe, comfortable, and far from the sea. The Provincara grants him this in return for his service as a tutor and secretary to her granddaughter, the Royesse Iselle (royesse means princess).
Cazaril is content with his duties but becomes worried when the king of Chalion orders Iselle and her brother, Royse Teidez (royse means prince), to court because that would place Cazaril within the vicinity of the man who damned him to slavery aboard the Roknari galley. However, since Iselle needs someone to protect her interests at court and help her navigate its politics, Cazaril accompanies her there.
“I’ve seen his soul stripped naked. I doubt he can ever forgive me for that.”
While that is taking place, there is often mention of the gods (there are five), death magic (which is connected to a god called the Bastard), and religion. The people of Chalion are very religious and their religion is pretty similar to Catholicism. At court in Cardegross, Cazaril turns to religion and death magic, which many people aren’t sure actually works, to protect Iselle from those who wish to control her. But by attempting such magic, Cazaril learns that the gods are real and has a demon placed inside him.
At first he thinks he’s cursed, but Cazaril soon learns that he has been chosen by the gods to help Iselle protect Chalion and its ruling family from a great curse that threatens to destroy them. (Goodreads)
I was hooked soon as I started reading, and my curiosity about how things would be resolved and whether or not the gods are real kept me going. When I later learned, on Tor.com, that each book in the series focuses on a different god, I knew I must read them all. There are three books in this series so far and I bought the other two immediately upon completing The Curse of Chalion.
The Curse of Chalion has a slow build-up. Despite being hooked from early on, my interest and the plot’s pace increased at about the middle of the story, I believe, when it’s hinted that the gods are real. My avid interest in the religion and its relation to the magic system is not because such a thing is in this story, it’s because both are integral to this world. Magic is something that is mysterious to the characters. Magic abilities, which seems to be bestowed to those with sainthood (I may be wrong about the saint part since more about it might be revealed in other books), is uncommon in this world. The characters don’t even believe in the curse that warps those of the ruling family, and those who do believe in such things are considered superstitious or crazy.
However, religion is a major part of this world and is something that many greatly believe in. Because there are five gods, the religion has factions dedicated to each god, and each faction seems to have soldiers (I thought of them as knights similar to the Knight Templar) who’re pledged to them. The slow build-up is needed for the world building and for the reader to be acquainted with the religion, so when magic does occur, we are surprised but not so shocked as to believe it impossible.
“The gods have surely made a mock of me. I would return the favor, but they hold my heart and my breath hostage to their whims.”
So what I love about this mixture of religion and magic is that characters, or rather Cazaril, often use theology to explain both. The gods are real beings that the characters believe in and worship, making them an important facet of this world and not simply an element placed in the story to cause a particular thing to occur or a character to react in a certain way. They interfere with people’s lives, but in Cazaril’s case, it’s hard to tell when exactly they began to do so. For example, Cazaril’s negotiation of Iselle’s marriage would have been impossible if he hadn’t been recognized for his time aboard the Roknari slave galley. That help seemed convenient to me at first, but when I considered what plans the gods had, it made me, like Cazaril, wonder if they were meddling in his life since then.
“The gods’ most savage curses come upon us as answers to our own prayers, you know. Prayer is a dangerous business. I think it should be outlawed.”
Magic, also, isn’t a simple, silly thing. It’s a heightened ability bestowed by the gods because in order for the gods to effect change in the world, they have to use a human conduit. Therefore, the ability can be easily taken away. To me, the magic and religion seem to be a cycle in this world. It made me want to explore and know more about its structure.
I wonder if I made sense there. It was quite hard to place my enjoyment of this story’s world building in words. Anyway, other things I liked were the characters and their development.
Cazaril’s character was new and refreshing. In the fantasy books I often read, the protagonist is young, inexperienced, and eager to go on adventures and prove themselves. However, Cazaril is an adult (he’s 35), a veteran of several wars and adventures, and is scarred mentally and physically by his experiences. He has already proven himself and has a reputation too. Him being older and experienced, which I knew from reading Jonathan’s review, is another reason why I wanted to read this book. I wanted to see how such a protagonist would be. And since reading the novel, Cazaril has become one of my favorite characters. I admire his level-headedness and his humor, no matter how dire a situation is, as well as his wit and wisdom, though he’s often unaware of his sage advises.
The side characters — Iselle, Betriz, Umegat — were enjoyable as well and though there were some one-dimensional characters, I didn’t mind them much. However, it was nice to see how Cazaril’s tutoring affected Iselle and Betriz, making them quite adept at navigating court life at Cardegross and later effective at helping Iselle organize her own wedding, which made me admire her even more. I love that she takes matters — her future and the welfare of her country — into her own hands instead of relying on others who do not have her best interests at heart. I read somewhere that the story is based somewhat on Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, who unified Spain, so I guess Iselle’s marriage harkens to that bit of history.
“The world demands I make good choices on no information, and then blames my maidenhood for my mistakes, as if my maidenhood were responsible for my ignorance. Ignorance is not stupidity, but it might as well be. And I do not like feeling stupid.”
— Royesse Iselle (she’s awesome!)
Betriz and Umegat were also great. Betriz is a great friend and I like that it is her who asks for the man’s hand when proposing her marriage. Umegat was cool too. I enjoyed reading his discussions with Cazaril and I think I know who his man servant really is. And Ista, Iselle’s mother who’s considered crazy, was an interesting character. I’d love to know more about her.
The writing was okay; it didn’t stand out to me. However I’m glad that I read this on my iPad because I was unfamiliar with many words. Reading this story made me realize that I need to expand my vocabulary. It also made me realize that I overlooked a clue from Robin Hobbs’s Liveship Traders series, which I’m buddy reading with Emily at Embuhlee liest. We’re currently on Mad Ship. In the Liveship Traders series, there is a liveship (an animated ship) named Paragon. When I first saw his name, I thought “Oh, that’s an interesting name. It must be a play on him being a pariah in his community,” which is probably true as well, but I didn’t realize that Paragon was an actual word until I read Curse of Chalion and saw it used in a sentence.
“Bergon is very warmed with your description of this paragon of Chalion.”
So now I know that paragon means the epitome of a particular thing, which makes me think of Paragon in a whole different way now. At this point in Mad Ship, he’s broken and depressed and a bit discombobulated, so I guess he will later become the best damn liveship EVER!!! I’m rooting for Paragon since I now know what his name means… Though maybe Hobb named him Paragon to be ironic. I guess I won’t know until the end of the series.
The story was great and was a nice break from what I usually read. It was also nice to see the world’s religion play a major part in the story. It makes me eager to read the other books in the series to see how it is used there. And did I mention it’s humorous? Cazaril is a little sarcastic sometimes. He made me laugh.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
(I stole that from Book Riot. I think I’ll include it in my reviews from now on.)
If you are a fan of high fantasy and would like something a little different, I recommend you give this one a read.
Quotes and passages from the book:
“But have you really understood how powerless the gods are, when the lowest slave may exclude them from his heart?And if from his heart, then from the world as well, for the gods may not reach in except through living souls. If the gods could seize passage from anyone they wished, then men would be mere puppets. Only if they borrow or are given will from a willing creature, do they have a little channel through which to act.”
“A saint is not a virtuous soul, but an empty one. He — or she — gives the gift of their will to their god. And in renouncing action, makes action possible.”
“Only the saints would joke so about the gods, because it was either joke or scream, and they alone knew it was all the same to the gods.”
I just love this sentence: “Cazaril, Palli at his heels, strode out the Zangre gates dressed for winter riding, the saddlebags slung over his shoulder heavy with a change of clothes, a small fortune, theology, and arguable treason.”
“A rite done by rote.”
“Events may be horrible or inescapable. Men have always a choice — if not whether, the how, they may endure.”
“This was my life; it was enough.”
“…dying into this strange new birth…”
“Poetry — poetry might do it…I need words that mean more than they mean, words not just with height and width, but depth and weight, and other dimensions that I cannot even name.”