I am very much a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold, who is probably most famous for her Vorkosigan Saga -- which as become a kind of "Lord Peter Whimsy" in outer space (if Lord Peter were a deformed son of a Great Man in a militaristic culture). But a few years ago, she stopped writing about Miles Vorkosigan. As I understand it, the next big event in Miles' life would be the death of his father and she didn't want to face that.
So instead she wrote The Curse of Chalion, a fantasy novel I adore.
You may notice I'd rather write a rave than a scathing critique. There are times when this blog will contain the latter, but frankly there's so much more pleasure in the former the ratio makes plenty of sense from this side of things.
What to say about Chalion? To start with, it is refreshing not to see a medieval background based on Southern Europe rather than the North. The Ibran Peninsula, as has been pointed out by others, is pretty much Spain pointed in the other direction. More accurately, it resembles the independent kingdoms that made up Spain in the Middle Ages, such as Castille, Aragon and Leon. Two versions of the same Faith divide the lands, not unlike Christianity and Islam. Both revere the same four Gods -- the Father of Winter, the Daughter of Spring, the Mother of Summer and the Son of Autumn. Yet Chalion and other kingdoms also worship a fifth god, the Bastard, patron of all things "out of season." He answers the prayers of illegitimate children and homosexuals. One of his animals is the rat.
Much is made of religion in this novel and its two sequels (which do not, however, form one story--this isn't really a trilogy). Even more is made of the idea that the Gods cannot thwart free will, not even a little bit. Through great effort, they can influence this world, but their real wonders work (at least in terms of individual lives) through people who have given their lives to the service of the Gods. In the second book, Paladin of Souls, the Bastard even speaks in a dream to a grieving mother, of whom he asks a boon. "A hundred men were sent to save your son," He tells her, "and all turned aside ... will you now also turn aside as they did?" (Talk about twisting the knife -- he's a Bastard alright.)
But I digress. The Curse of Chalion tells a different, but related tale. Its hero is not a member of any royal family, although he will in the end endanger his soul to save such. Neither is Cazaril some orphan or peasant chosen by a wizard to go on a quest. He is a knight, an impoverished minor noble of great character. Because of this, and because he saw a vastly powerful man's weakness, Cazaril was betrayed. We meet him after he's been freed from slavery on a galley. He is penniless, returning to a castle where he spent his boyhood in hopes of finding employment. Although not at all old even by the standards of a pre-industrial society, he feels himself ancient. Turning the pages, we learn why. He has been stripped bare, emptied by trauma and fear and pain, until at last all pretense and all distractions have poured away. Cazaril is now only and purely himself. Which is a good thing, for Cazaril purified is what Chalion and its royal family will so desperately need.
He is willing to be a scullion or a groom. But the Lady of the castle, a Dowager of great will, sees in him a possible tutor for the teenage girls under her roof. One is the Dowager's granddaughter, half-sister to the reigning King. The other is her best friend. He is not initially pleased at this prospect. "Wouldn't it be easier to give me a razor to cut my throat now?" That earns a laugh, but when he says he'd much rather defend a besieged fortress, he gets a hint of what is to come. "She will be soon," warns the Dowager.
And she's right.
For the King is without an heir, a strangely weak man whose only joy in life seems to be an exotic menagerie of animals. His courtiers run Chalion for him, and do a poor job. The princess is needed, and her tutor accompanies her to the capital -- a place of treachery and hope, of momentous events, complex plots, and even a few miracles. Literal miracles. Without quite meaning to, all of Chalion's history comes to rest on the scarred shoulders of Cazaril. For it is he discovers the terrible curse laid upon the royal bloodline that twists and corrupts all their efforts to rule well. We, like him, learn the history of that curse -- how it came to be, what its consequences have been, the heart-shredding efforts to lift it before now. And the terrifying words, spoken by a Goddess, of what is needed to end the curse once and for all.
I half-figured out what her words meant before Cazaril did. One can understand why, since he was on the "inside" as it were. And he's distracted by...well, so very much.
Honestly, reviews that spoil the endings or major plot twists of books seem a cheat to me, so this one won't do that. Suffice to say, the characters are real and interesting. The background feels genuine, including all the hints of what has happened/is going on "off stage." Meanwhile, the plot itself grips and teases and tantalizes, then moves one to tears. It does me, anyway. But then, I'm a softie. And I'm pleased this novel avoids a lot of fantasy cliches in favor of a realistic flavor. No berobed wizards issuing cryptic lore (a Saint or two, bewildered and sharing what little they know). No nation of horse-lords (but a kingdom by the sea that does have a marine "feel" to it). A surprisingly tolerant social structure in some ways, but justified and not taken to the point where it no longer seems like a feudal world. No guilds of amazonian warriors, for example, or secret society of thieves. No elves or anything like them. Magic, but nothing easy or without limit.
And at its heart, a hero. Not a great warrior (although he seems to have been an excellent officer) nor heir to a throne. He does not fulfill an ancient prophecy about defeating a Dark Lord. The Dark Lord he struggles against is simply a greedy and clever nobleman, a symptom of a greater problem. He does not save the day by skill, but by his courage and his will. At one point, faced with the prospect of being Chosen By The Gods, our hero Cazaril asks a Saint what he should do. The Saint's answer--do your job as you would anyway--proves the key. Rather like Harry Potter in that way. What defeats evil and makes way for healing is courage, compassion, a minimum of greed coupled with a loyalty of pure steel.
Like our own world, when you really think about it.