Mon
Mar 14 2011 1:20pm

Gods and kingdoms: Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion

Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion (2001) was the highest ranked book on the Tor.com poll that I like and haven’t yet written about. It’s fantasy, and it’s the kind of fantasy we don't really have a name for — kingdom level fantasy, fantasy that isn’t about an epic battle between good and evil but about political manouvering and history with magic. It’s one of my favourite kinds of fantasy. The world here is loosely based on Reconquista Spain, only loosely but enough to make it different from the standard high medieval fantasyland. What we have here is a story that really grabs hold and gives you reason to care, at first for Cazaril, coming home from the wars broken and betrayed, and then for what he comes to care about, the Royesse Iselle, and the curse on the royal house of Chalion.

No spoilers.

The first thing I want to say is what an enjoyable book this is. It has that “I-want-to-read-it” nature, and I read it solidly from start to finish with hardly a pause, even though it’s fairly long. It’s also a book that has grown on me, I like it better now that when I first read it. The first time I read it I enjoyed it but I would rather have had another Miles book. Now I really like it. I don’t know if it’s because with all the tension it’s a book that’s better when you already know what happens and the shape of what’s going on, or whether it’s a book that reads better at 46 than at 36.

This is a much more political novel than the sequel, Paladin of Souls. Cazaril is a practical down-to-earth man who gets caught up in divine events willy nilly. It’s surprising, re-reading it, how slowly it gets going — plenty happens, and it's interesting and absorbing, but the magical plot is set up carefully and doesn’t take centre stage until half way through. The political complications are enough as the world unfolds to us slowly. Cazaril comes home to Valanda and becomes Iselle’s tutor. He’s trying to teach her wisdom and moderation along with geography and Darthacan verbs. Then they are summoned to court and things speed up, but it isn’t until things get desperate and he tries magic as an act of desperation, believing it will kill him.

The details are all beautifully worked out, and the large cast of characters all excellently characterised and memorable — you wouldn’t expect any less from Bujold. The technology and the interlocking history and politics is all terrific. It all feels real and solid, from the four lobed temples to the rope of tainted pearls. The magic and divinity is so well integrated into all of this that you’d think that was real as well — she’s really thought it through.

On my first reading I thought it was the beginning of a rather different kind of series. Bujold has made a world with five gods, and a very fine theology and approach to the numinous. She has said that she intended to write a book for each of the gods — so far she’s done the Daughter, the Bastard, and the Son, which would leave the Mother and the Father yet to do. (I haven’t heard that she’s working on them. And hey, Ivan book.) What I expected after reading this book was that we were going to see the political future of Iselle and Bergon as Isabella and Ferdinand. And reading this again now, yes, I’d like to see how that goes, I’d certainly be interested, but I can see that it wasn’t the thing Bujold was interested in exploring with fantasy, and I like what she wanted to do better. Indeed, that’s probably why I like it better — having read The Paladin of Souls, I understand what she’s doing and I can appreciate it properly.

Great book, and I’m not at all tired of this world, I think I’ll read the sequels now.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

44 comments
Sydo Zandstra
1. Fiddler
I really love this book too. One of the things that stood out for me was reading about Cazaril doing the magic, thinking he solved the problem, and then finding out he actually made it worse. (I hope that isn't too spoilerish; if so, say the word and I'll edit)

Paladin of Souls does make you appreciate this book even more, if only because you know where its main character is coming from, and it shows Bujold did a good setting up...

You said 'Ivan novel'. Now I have to go info-hunting on the net... ;-)
Sean Arthur
2. wsean
I think I approached Bujold the opposite way from everyone else: I'd never read her before picking up this book on a recommendation from a friend.

So reading about Caz was like a revelation: here were wonderful and fully-drawn characters, great plotting, solid world-building, everything I could ask for in a writer I'd never read before.

I immediately ran out and picked up Paladin of Souls--and Warrior's Apprentice.

And promptly fell in love with Miles.
Tedd
3. Tedd
I knew about this book and didn't read it for a long time, because it wasn't Miles. But I finally read it and was very glad I did. My respect for Ms. Bujold increased enormously, as she created another world totally different from the Vor world, and did a fantastic job. Just an awesome book. And then Paladin of Souls was even better.

I must reread this book and Paladin of Souls about every 6 months.

The third book , Hallowed Hunt(?), had a very different feel. The same world, but a very different part of it. Not as good as Paladin IMO, but a very interesting read.

Tedd
Tedd
4. jmd
I absolutely adore this book! It has layers upon layers of angst and humor and wisdom. I did like the sequel very much as well. I have not read the third, as it did not seem to be hardly connected at all to this universe, but if what you say is true, then I might have to pick it up and eagerly await 4 and 5. I also do want to know what the letter game was that is mentioned in the acknowledgments - any game that can make a brain create a Cazaril is a game I want to know about!
Holly Heisey
5. seili
I tore through the Miles omnibus books in under a month...and then bemoaning lack of more picked up this book. I wasn't expecting too much, as I'd heard her first fantasy novel hadn't done too well. I was, honestly, blown away. The depth of meaning throughout the plot and the way it was woven to come to that amazing bang of an ending...wow.

I can't say this is on my all-time favorites list, but at the same time, it'd be on one of those "books that most impacted my life" lists.
Hugh Arai
6. HArai
My favorite part of this series is the interesting take on being a saint, how it works and how people think it works...
Alayne McGregor
7. alaynem
@jmd: The letter game is probably the same one that led Pat Wrede and Caroline Stevermer to create Sorcery and Cecelia. It's described more fully in the intro to that book.

I've always loved this book, particularly for its metaphors that become literal. Paladin of Souls is even better. And if you haven't read The Hallowed Hunt, you are missing some truly memorable characters. It's not the same type of book as the first two, and probably is discounted because of that, which I think is a great pity.
Rikka Cordin
8. Rikka
I haven't read any Vorkosgian series or whatever it's called. I'm actually reluctant to because it won't be Cazaril or Dag/Fawn. I was introduced to Bujold through Curse of Chalion and the Sharing Knives serieseses and I love them both dearly. Cazaril is easy to love and Iselle is probably awesome, or something. I especially love the ending of the novel and thought it was a lot better than Paladin of Souls, which I enjoyed but had far too little Lupe in it.
Sean Arthur
9. wsean
Rikka- start with Shards of Honor and ease into the series slowly. I promise you'll come to love the hyperactive little git.
Hugh Arai
10. HArai
Rikka@8: I could definitely see someone who loves Cazaril and Iselle coming to love various characters in the Vorkosigan series. I'd definitely recommend trying them to anyone, let alone someone who likes the other Bujold works.
Sydo Zandstra
11. Fiddler
@Rikka;

I'll second wsean here. But I suggest you go look for the book called Cordelia's Honour. It has Shards of Honour and Barrayar combined, and as a whole book, it's the perfect setup for the Miles Vorkosigan series :)
Rob Munnelly
12. RobMRobM
Rikka - and best of all the entire Vorkosigan series is free on line!! (Only one that is not is Memory, which is in sequences occurs after Mirror Dance.)

Google Vorkosigan Baen and Free and look for cites to web pages in late October or early November of last year that link to the free goodness. And, yes, having read all of your Bujold favorites, I'm confident you'll enjoy them too, especially if you start with Shards and Barrayar and the mixed marriage love story of Aral and Cordelia and the circumstances that led to their remarkable, honor-bound, crippled, hyperactive genius son, Miles.

For myself, I've a big fan of Chalion. Really enjoyed the character of Caz and all is he put through in the book.

Rob
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Posts on the second and third coming up soon.
Kate Keith-Fitzgerald
14. ceitfianna
I first started reading this book at a con when the friend who introduced me to the Miles' books gave it to me. Sadly I wasn't able to finish it but I remember loving what I read and wanting to go back to it. This is a good reminder that I should.
Zack Weinberg
15. zwol
I just got back from a week in southern Spain, where of course they remember Isabel and Ferdinand very fondly, and occasionally it would come into my mind that I was looking at the real place, or reading about the real event, that some piece of this book had been based on. That added a little extra somethin'. I plan to go read the real history now.

I sort of wish Bujold had made the Quintarians less obviously the correct side of the schism, in this book anyway (Paladin of Souls had no choice but to show the Bastard in a good light). Or at least credited the Roknari with some of the architectural and artistic achievements of the true al-Andalus. The way it is, Chalion feels like it's blithely ignoring a lot of the moral ambiguity of the Reconquista and its consequences. Maybe she'll address this if she ever writes the Mother and/or Father books. (She did touch on related issues in Hallowed Hunt, which was nice.)
Tedd
16. Christopher Byler
I sort of wish Bujold had made the Quintarians less obviously the
correct side of the schism

The problem with that is, religion isn't just a matter of tribalism in that universe -- the gods are real and what they do matters. Either the Bastard plays an important role in the universe or he doesn't. Theology, as Cazaril observes, isn't just for unworldly dreamers.

In fact, I wonder how the schism persisted as long as it did -- why don't the other four gods tell the Quadrenes to cut it out? And why create the General knowing that as a Quadrene he's going to wage war on the Quintarians and massacre priests of the Bastard? (Maybe they intended him to be doing something else, but he refused?)

Although, as it happens, if you want to see a fantasy version of the Reconquista that *does* present the sides in a more balanced light (as well as paying more attention to the ones caught in the middle), I can recommend an excellent one -- _The Lions of al-Rassan_ by Guy Gavriel Kay. But it doesn't have interventionist gods -- they would change everything, if they existed and intervened.
Pamela Adams
17. Pam Adams
Yes, I too truly love Cazaril and Iselle and Beatriz and......... (and really really want her to get back to the series- at least once the Ivan book is done!)

Plus, considering how the book starts, I love Cazaril's realization of 'how long have I been walking down this road?'
Eugenie Delaney
18. EmpressMaude
I loved this book (more so than the sequels) and I genuinely adore Lois' writing but...

... I must confess to being really perturbed by her invented vocabulary of royal and noble terms. Some them actually "ring" authentic to me, i.e. ("Provincar/a" , "Castillar/a
john mullen
19. johntheirishmongol
I don't know if Lois can write a bad book. This is an amazing story that I hope she continues. I am not nearly as enchanted at the Sharing Knife series, which, while good, was somewhat mundane.

I would write about Miles but I know that in the Hugo winners we will be discussing her novels in great detail.
john mullen
19. johntheirishmongol
I don't know if Lois can write a bad book. This is an amazing story that I hope she continues. I am not nearly as enchanted at the Sharing Knife series, which, while good, was somewhat mundane.

I would write about Miles but I know that in the Hugo winners we will be discussing her novels in great detail.
john mullen
19. johntheirishmongol
I don't know if Lois can write a bad book. This is an amazing story that I hope she continues. I am not nearly as enchanted at the Sharing Knife series, which, while good, was somewhat mundane.

I would write about Miles but I know that in the Hugo winners we will be discussing her novels in great detail.
Tony Zbaraschuk
20. tonyz
seili @5 : Bujold's first fantasy novel was The Spirit Ring, set in a pseudo-Italy and featuring art, coups, true love, dungeon crawling, and a very fiery final scene. I like it, but then I'd read Cellini's memoirs in college and recognized some of the riffs she was doing on that.

Chalion's a completely different thing, and I think Curse of Chalion may be the finest book she's written. It's that very rare fantasy novel that gets religion right, which deserves praise just for the attempt, not to mention the success. The plotting is mostly very well-done; the numinous is, indeed, numinous; the prose is plain and simple and deceptively deep, rising to moments of high lucidity that blaze with glory and yet fit perfectly well with the rest of the book; the protagonists are well worth spending time with; and you really do care about these people.
Tedd
21. BlueRose
I really wanted to like this book, but the first time I read it, the ending left me a little unresolved because I didnt quite get it. It wasn't til probably my third read through (and having read Paladin) that it finally fell into place for me.

Until then the prose and the humour and the characters carried it as Bujold always manages. I much prefer this series to the WGW offerings, and I utterly *adore* Paladin and Ista, but this is a marvellous book that isn't as appreciated as it should be, if only because it does take more than one read (and reading Paladin) to fully understand it.
Rikka Cordin
22. Rikka
@11, 12

Thanks for the tips, guys. Found Cordelia's Honor in pdf and dled it. Will probably end up buying it if I like it anyway as I don't have a laptop (though I could get an ipad out from the library...) and portability is really so important :P I think someone linked me to the publishing order somewhere, which is normally how I read series but as I understand this is not the first book published so where should I proceed after this?
Tony Zbaraschuk
23. tonyz
Publication order: Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and Hallowed Hunt. HH is actually set some centuries before the other two, but there's no direct overlap so it doesn't matter all that much.
Tedd
24. stargazer
Bujold has mentioned at readings for some years now that she has ideas for the Father and Mother books simmering away in her mind; they just haven't made it to the front burner yet. (And I for one can't blame her, since the Sharing Knife books were so tightly linked I can see how they demanded to be written sequentially -- and then of course who could complain about a new Miles book? :-) I expect we'll see them in due time.

Speaking of time: @tonyz - where is it established unambiguously that HH is centuries prior to the other two? I couldn't find any clear references to dates or events in Chalionese history that pinned it down precisely, and conversely the Chalionese have even less to say about the history of the Weald.
Beth Mitcham
25. bethmitcham
Another thing Bujold says at readings is that readers always want more of what they like, but that's because they only know about the stuff they like. She likes to write the stuff they have no idea they want. Chalien and the Sharing Knife were both books that no one would have demanded from Bujold, but I'm very glad she gave them to us.

Not that I won't appreciate the Ivan book too.

Jo Walton also tends to write books that I had no idea I wanted until I get them home. I mean, I'd love more Tooth and Claw (for example) but not if it takes time away from the thing she wants to write.
Alan Wallcraft
26. AlanWall
Rikka - The CD bundled with the hardback of Cryoburn contains almost all the Vorkosigan Saga. This CD is on line at 5th imperium, and it is an authorized free copy of all the ebooks in multiple formats. They are also available at Baen's webscriptions for $5 each - which is a bargin.
Rob Munnelly
27. RobMRobM
Rikka - best to read Vorkosigan in internal chronology order, as Bujold jumped all around in writing them. All but Memory are free on line from Baen publishing. My favorites FWIW are Mountains of Mourning, Mirror Game and Memory.


Shards of Honor
Barrayar (Hugo)
+ Collected as Cordelia's Honor

Warrior's Apprentice
Mountains of Mourning (novella) (Hugo/Nebula)
Vor Game (Hugo)

+ Collected as Young Miles

Cetaganda
Ethan of Athos (does not feature Miles, although he is mentioned)
Labyrinth (novella)
+ Collected as Miles, Mystery and Mayhem

Borders of Infinity (novella)
Brothers in Arms
Mirror Game (Hugo)
+ Collected as Miles Errant

Memory
+ Not in any collection

Komarr
A Civil Campaign
Winterfair Gifts
+ Collected in Miles in Love

Diplomatic Immunity
+ Collected with Falling Free (below) and Labyrinth (above) in Miles, Mutants and Microbes

Cryoburn
+ Not in any collection - this is latest book, published 10/2010

******
While not in main series, also should read Falling Free (set in same universe, 200 years before). Consider reading it before Diplomatic Immunity, which is set is same part of space and involves same peoples. (Nebula award winner)

Rob
Joseph Blaidd
28. SteelBlaidd
I can't even think the words to Caz's response to The Fox without tearing up.

The most incredible thing in this whole series is that she maniged to create not just believeable gods, but gods worth believing in.
Michael Grosberg
29. Michael_GR
You know, I've seen tons of "best of" lists, but this best of the decade list is the first where I'm in agreement on almost all the entries. As everyone else says, this is a wonderful book.

Incidentally, the name "Lupe Cazaril" popped up in the "harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" fanfic a while ago.
Tony Zbaraschuk
30. tonyz
The relative dating of HH compared to CoC/PoS depends on the assumption that Lois is calquing onto European history more or less accurately. HH is set four centuries after an imperial conquest of the Weald. If we assume that the historical model for this is Charlemagne's conquest of the Saxons c. 770-800, then HH would be set in the equivalent of 1200 or so, whereas CoC/PoS are based in the equivalent of Iberia c. 1450-1470. So about a 250-year gap.

There's nothing in the books that contradicts this, and some supporting evidence (e.g., the apparent absence of printed books in HH). But it does depend on some extra-book evidence.
Tedd
31. Doug M.
"If we assume that the historical model for this is Charlemagne's conquest of the Saxons c. 770-800,"

It is. My wife -- who grew up in exactly that region of Germany -- provided Lois with several of the book's placenames. (My mother-in-law was mayor of "Easthome" for many years.)


Doug M.
Rikka Cordin
32. Rikka
Rob, you are somewhere between awesome and a godsend. thanks for the list :D
Tedd
33. JoeNotCharles
Christopher Byler @16: I have two theories about that. One is that the Golden General WAS the gods' attempt to tell the Quadrenes to cut it out: having all of the Father's power was supposed to give him a direct and personal knowledge of the gods, which would show him that the Bastard was one of them, and then he would turn around and reform Quadrene society. But either he only got direct and personal knowledge of the Father, and still didn't believe in the Bastard even though the Father believed in him, or he was just a huge hypocrite who preferred to go a-conquering even knowing he was perpetuating a huge injustice. (Why couldn't the General have been given a line to the Bastard specifically? Because then the Quadrene power structure would have rejected him - being a saint of the Father would have allowed him to reform it from within.)
The second is that, like the Greek gods, the five are more interested in the particular mortals that catch their eye than in abstracts like justice (or the societies that those mortals create). The Father fell in love with the man who was to become the Golden General and decided to give him a huge gift, not caring about the broader implications of what he would do with that gift. I haven't re-read these books very often, but as far as I recall this fits with the actions of the gods we see elsewhere (in which the ones concerned with justice - even the Bastard in his concern for the downtrodden - act on behalf of specific people with problems they've taken an interest in).
What I like best about this book is that it reads like a scientific fantasy - the rules of magic and religion are completely deterministic and, as far as I can tell, never violated, yet it is still clearly magic and mysterious - numinous, as the other post says - and not merely sufficiently advanced science.
Tedd
34. sylvia_rachel
Oh, the Chalion books, how I love them! I read them before the Miles books, though: they were my Bujold gateway drug.

I read Curse after Paladin; the latter I picked up because of the cover and because I liked the idea of a fortyish female protagonist dragged into events against her will, and then when I'd read it through twice without stopping I thought, hmm, perhaps I'd better read the book before it ... and then ended up loving Caz almost as much as I love Ista.

The audiobooks from Blackstone are also excellent. Although as you point out this book is very long, which I totally didn't realize until I listened to the audiobook and it took more than a week.
David Dyer-Bennet
35. dd-b
I need to reread this one. It's a great book, I have the fondest memories of it. It always strikes me as a very "mature" book -- about people with pasts, and adult problems.

I'm afraid I didn't like Paladin of Souls nearly as much, to the point where I haven't read the third one. Behind on the Sharing Knife books after reading the first three, also, but that may yet be correctable.

I'm not sure about getting religion "right"; I don't get actual real-world religion at all, whereas people's religions in this book make perfect sense to me. This suggests to me that what's going on in the book is somehow different from real-world religion. So, I like the take on religions in this book, but I suspect that's evidence that it doesn't work like that for people who are religious in the real world.
Tedd
36. dancingcrow
@19 - I don't know about LB writing a bad book but she has written a couple I've hated.

But not this one! It did take a little bit of time and no Miles to start them but I do like the ways they work.
Tedd
37. sixpence
I have a theory that Paladin has more appeal to those who have aged out of their role in life and have gone/are going through the difficult process of deciding 'what do I do now' and the struggle that the requisite redefinition of roles creates with those people who are used to you the way you were, or perhaps find the previous role more convenient and perhaps more profitable. Friends who are in their late 40's or older resonate better with the themes than those who are younger.
Marcus W
38. toryx
I finally read and completed this. Naturally, I loved it. I kind of want to run out and get Paladin of Souls but I have two other books by different authors that I kind of need to read first. Oh, the agony of having great books to read!
Tedd
39. Andrew Donaldson
This was the first book I finished, and immediately re-read. It's not the finest book I've read, but one of the books I've read with the most pleasure.

Bujold is a wonder with narrative voices (the Ivan book is terrific), and Cazaril's is one of the voices I most miss, though I can "hear" what I imagine he'd say in almost any circumstance--which is surely a mark of a finely drawn character.
Tedd
40. jekni
AndrewWall @26 - Lois has said most emphatically that the 5th Imperium copies are pirated - from the CD - and are very definitely NOT authorised. She has requested people to not spread the lie further. (If you have a friend who bought the hc and who is willing to give you a copy of the CD, that is a different matter altogether as that is within the distribution agreement for the CD as issued, ebook distribution rights remain with her publisher.)
Rob Munnelly
41. RobMRobM
@40 - moot point, because the Fifth Imperium copies are no longer available. Warrior's Apprentice remains a free book at the Baen E-Library and I found Mountains of Mourning still free on line. Might be others but I didn't check comprehensively.

Note, to all others interested, that the first five or six chapters of the new Ivan book - Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, are free on line though Baen and are enjoyable.
Rikka Cordin
42. Rikka
I would like to add to this that I have since read (and reread) all of the Vorkosigan Saga and love it and thank you.

Also! Bujold's books are available on Google Play for pretty decent prices. I snagged the entire Sharing Knife series for like $15 on sale one day. And all you need's a gmail account!

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