The Curse of Chalion, like the Sharing Knife books also by Lois Bujold, has ties to real places — though, in this case, a mirrored and warped version of medieval Spain, rather than an extremely distant post-post-apocalyptic future US Midwest. (I also note that the Chalion books were written first.)
It is also a beautiful and harrowing tale. I have my quibbles, but overall, the book was gorgeous.
As ever, spoilers below. I strongly recommend reading the book… so, if you don’t like spoilers, read the book before reading the rest of this post.
No, seriously, read the book. It’s amazing. I’ll wait.
An Annoying Pattern
In her works, Bujold has a tendency to include relationships involving a young woman and a much older man. Perhaps this is excusable, since the practice is more common in the ficticious cultures she concocts, but…
This time, I think it goes to far.
The main protagonist, Cazaril, is 35. By the end of the book, the woman he ends up engaged to, Betriz, is 19 or 20.
This fails the usual “divide by 2 plus 7″ test for age-difference sketchiness (which I note both Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary have documented, though I won’t link to the latter page, since its contents are sketchy. I’m sure you can find it yourself if you want). But it gets worse.
Formally, Betriz is the lady-in-waiting of Iselle. Cazaril gains a position as Iselle’s secretary and tutor near the beginning of the story, and thus, effectively, also acts as tutor to Betriz.
Teacher-student relationship? Like any good person, Cazaril resists the idea for most of the novel. But the way it nags and him, and Betriz’s obvious attraction… by the time they’re getting married, he’s at least no longer her tutor, but… sketchy. Extremely sketchy. Sure, it’s going fine in this case, and in this case, there’s no coercion going on, but… I’m sorry, this is just so wrong. I wish this romance had been handled differently.
An Elegant System
In contrast, I loved the world-building here. The people of Chalion have a firm belief in their five gods: the Father, the Mother, the Daughter, the Son, and the Bastard. Each have their own seasonal association (except the Bastard, whose timing is all things at the wrong time or out of season), and their own province of matters they manage.
The gods, however, find it difficult to reach across and meddle — material things are hard or impossible for them to move directly. However, they can bestow gifts on willing human vessels, guide animals in one way or another, or reach through entirely upon someone’s death, to scoop up their soul or perform other actions in the physical realm.
Thus, portents in dreams can be very true indeed; live animals can be used for accurate augury; and death magic can be called down upon the unjust at the sacrifice of one’s own life.
And it is very, very real, and people live their lives in acceptance of that reality.
Much of the book covers Cazaril’s gradual theological discoveries about how the gods operate, and what it is like to be one of their vessels… and how dangerous a little prayer can be.
An Unanswered Question
Much of the latter portions of the book revolve around (as one might guess from the title) a curse that was placed the royal family, apparently in retribution for their king-equivalent sending a death curse against the Golden General, the fate-favored leader of an invading army. Apparently, this Golden General unleashed some of his fate-favored-ness on them upon his death, as a curse instead of a blessing, resulting in perpetual ill fortune — or what Cazaril describes as a curse that takes people apart using their own virtues against them.
How this happened is never precisely explained. Nor is where the Golden General got his good fortune. Nor is the Cazaril’s later realization that said good fortune was the equivalent of a drop of blood from the Father, one of the five gods.
Finally, the Bastard is supposedly the child of the Mother and a demon. Where do the demons fit into the cosmology? Can they do the same kinds of manipulations as the gods?
“How did this all get started, exactly?” is not completely answered, which I find a bit frustrating.
Will this show up in the next book? (Rumor says, yes.)
Regardless, I hear that the sequel is at least as good. Maybe I’ll have some time next weekend…
These novels are amazing. I’ve written about the first one — Promise of Blood — before, and I’ve opted to hold off on writing about the other two until I had finished both of them.
They’re really good.
It’s still a favorite of mine (although Michael is not so much of a fan), so let’s discuss it a bit.
Also, here be some spoilers.
It’s been quite a while since I wrote a post here. That’s not because I haven’t been reading books or not viewing other media. But it happens that much of what I’ve been reading lately hasn’t been the science fiction / fantasy that we usually dissect here. So here’s a partial list of what I’ve read or viewed in the past few months:
I was part of the team that observed the binary asteroid 2004 BL86 recently.
2. Various public health / epidemiology / medical research material. These have ranged from extremely positive (e.g. Hep C could now be potentially eradicated!) to anxiety-inducing (e.g. antichloinergic drugs – in very common use – appear to be associated with higher risk of developing dementia) to preliminary research that is too early to form opinions on (e.g. projects to identify genetic predispositions to various diseases in different cohorts and what those could imply for future prevention efforts).
3. Quite a lot of material on intersectional social justice. I’ve still got a lot of learning to do here; my reading lately has focused on but not been limited to efforts to simulanteously address racism, sexism, heterosexism, and gender essentialism. I have some biases in what problems I’ve been educating myself on – I’ve tried in particular to read up on problems in current US culture and in the scientific community, since those spaces are where I spend most of my time.
For the classic Chinese novels, as with a lot of other media past and current, I’ve had to invoke Anita Sarkeesian‘s rule: “it is both possible and necessary to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects”.
For example: One of the main characters in the novel 水滸傳 / Shuǐhǔ zhuàn / “Outlaws of the Marsh” or “Water Margin” is called 宋江 / Sòng Jiān. He starts as a clerk for the government, but helps the titular outlaws steal a large amount of money and takes a payment from them. His estranged wife discovers his involvement, and threatens to report him unless he divorces her. He kills her. And we are meant to be sympathetic to him. In another episode in the novel, some of the designated-hero outlaws become sworn fictive brothers with a cannibalistic serial killer who had drugged them into unconsciousness and was going to murder and butcher them until he figured out who they were – apparently not having a problem with his killing and eating people, as long as he isn’t killing them. So yeah. Not so much. Lots of Values Dissonance there.
5. I have read some scifi lately. Specifically, books from C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance-Union setting. I may do a post about them at some point.