It seems my latest theme is reading the fantasy works of popular science fiction authors. I’ve made a few bleak attempts into Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe only to be disappointed by this vaunted female SF author, but I wanted to give her another try. I feared The Curse of Chalion would be much of the same: stilted plot driven by stilted dialogue dumps, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that her fantasy writing style relies more upon narrative than dialogue. Overall, Chalion is a pleasant read with a well-developed spiritual world, but it offers little to challenge the intellect or contribute to the genre.
Lupe de Cazaril, a servant to the House of Chalion, returns to his position as servant to a noble family after twenty years of fighting misled wars followed by imprisonment and torture. The Roya of Chalion assigns him the duty of educating her heir Iselle and Iselle’s lady-in-waiting, Betriz. Although Cazaril desires a quiet life, he makes great sacrifices to protect his charges when Iselle and her brother are swept into political entanglements outside of their control, and his education provides Iselle with the authority she needs to regain control of her life. His sacrifices include practicing illegal death magic, growing a demon tumor in his belly, rising to sainthood, and taking a near-death beating for a young man, even though the beating happens way before Cazaril meets the young Iselle.
Although the story itself is standard fantasy fare modeled off of medieval lore, replete with conflicts stemming from an arranged marriage, Bujold’s inventiveness is apparent in Chalion’s religious systems. In Chalion, Bujold designs a polytheistic religion that is nothing short of fascinating. She borrows elements from Wicca, Hinduism, and Islam, but without ripping them off. The religion itself is based upon the seasons, in which each god represents a change in the weather. The Daughter of spring, the Mother of summer, the Son of autumn, and the Father of winter. A fifth god, the Bastard (I love it!), represents all that is forgotten or unwanted. Although the people of the religion pay heed to all five gods, they are most loyal to the god that best represents them: young women pray to the Daughter of spring, while old men pray to the Father of winter. At funerals, animal totems carried by human representatives for each god are released near the dead—the animal that goes near the coffin claims that soul for its god. And, get this—the soul almost always goes to the most appropriate god for that person’s time in life (young women go to the Daughter of spring, old men go to the Father of winter, etc.). The animals always know!
Maybe that’s the fascinating part. This is a religion that works. Despite its few mysteries, there are no doubting faithfuls, and enough happens to demonstrate sufficient proof that the gods exist. Bujold’s story requires this unshaky spiritual world because so much of it depends on the actions of the gods and goddesses. It cannot be looked upon as superstition or the entire story would be moot. However, that concrete faith diminishes the potential impact of the story because it fails to make any religious commentary in a world that is driven by its religion and manipulated by the gods. If crises of faith exist in the world of Chalion, Bujold isn’t going to address it in this novel. (She does in the sequel.)
Much like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, versions of the Chalion religion are followed in other kingdoms, though the interpretations and traditions vary. For example, the Ibran version of the religion uses prayer rugs, much like Muslims. The strict Roknari kingdom considers worship of the Bastard to be sacrilege, similar to the Judeo-Christian Satan. Homosexuality exists in Chalion as a somewhat common, but muted lifestyle, but the Roknari save their extreme punishments for those offenders of their restrictive social roles.
For a religiously indifferent person like myself, it’s clear that Bujold has really thought about this religious stuff. She walks Cazaril through deep and winding religious thoughts:
He knew where [heaven] was. It was on the other side of every living person… Every soul was a potential portal to the gods. I wonder what would happen if we all opened up at once. Would it flood the world with miracle, drain heaven? …And if I can see ghosts sundered from their bodies, why I can’t see them when they’re still in their bodies? …If the gods saw people’s souls but not their bodies…, it might explain why the gods were so careless of things such as appearance or other bodily functions. Such as pain?… And at the moment of death, we slide through altogether. Losing our anchor in matter, gaining… what? Death ripped a hole between the worlds… If a god died, what kind of hold would it rip between earth and heaven? (p. 457 – 459).
She packs in a lot of interesting questions that my nonsuperstitious mind is normally oblivious to. It’s interesting to follow as she develops the religion through Cazaril’s contemplations, but these philosophical and fantastic elements are weighed down by the mundane marriage plot. I hope the second installment pursues more of this kind of metaphysical exploration of her imaginative religion.
Regarding style, it’s apparent that Bujold whipped out her prewriting notebook. The story feels well-plotted, with foreshadowing techniques that are more signal than subtle (A scene in which Teidez announces their move to the central kingdom while covered in pig’s blood comes to mind.) Still, anal readers should avoid this read; Bujold is vastly generous with frustratingly clumsy adverbs that trip the bemused eye overwhelmingly. And, dialogue tags rarely stray from swallowing and puffing air. Apparently, the Chalionese are very salvific, as there is a lot of swallowing done between sentences. (I listened to a third of this in audio format, and the narrator is well-cast in terms of saliva production. Gross.)
It’s an alright read, best recommended for fantasy readers who enjoy light tension and happy endings, but I’ll probably thank the Bastard when I’m done with the sequel. It was pleasant enough, but I’m not convinced there is need for a second installment.