Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series of medieval fantasy based on historical Spain is comprised of three books (The Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt) and some novellas (haven’t read these yet) all set in the same world. They all stand alone, which is notable as I’ve been reading a lot of first-book-in-a-series lately, and it was so nice to read something with an actual beginning, middle, and ending. It was also wonderful to read something with active, capable characters who could keep up with the implication of events in their own world and actually even beat me to figuring some things out. Bujold’s writing is a delight and her characters are real, flawed people who are easy to root for. The world also feels very real, too, likely bolstered by the fact that, unlike a lot of the YA fantasy we’ve done, it doesn’t carefully tiptoe around things like the existence of homosexuality and abortion or the consequences of rape and war.
Also!!! Paladin of Souls has a character who’s fat but it’s not a character flaw!!! I’ve literally never seen this in a fantasy novel before, the only time his weight comes up as anything but a neutral physical descriptor is toward the end where it’s noted that after some times trapped under siege he’s thinner and it’s sad because it shows how much he’s been through.
Oddly, this series seems to get sold as romance, which is weird because it’s… not. Especially for medieval fantasy where who-marries-who court-style stuff is usually a big focus, it lacked romance. It’s really weird, kind of the opposite of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which was sold as straight fantasy but was actually romantic fantasy.
Also, as a final pre-jump aside, despite these being excellent fantasy, Bujold is actually known for her space opera series, to the point that it got her a lifetime achievement award at last year’s Hugos, and if you follow the sidebar, you may know space opera bores me to tears. I’d be curious to hear if any fans of the genre are familiar with her series.
The first book, Curse of Chalion, follows 35-year-old Lupe “Caz” dy Cazaril, who, we meet him, has escaped being a prisoner of war. He returns to the noble family he served as a page in his youth to beg for a job. He has no other options, having lost his family and their land, and cannot go to court since the corrupt generals who sold him to the enemy have gained favor there. The lady of the house remembers him fondly, takes pity on him, and ultimately assigns him to be her headstrong daughter’s tutor and secretary. The daughter, Iselle, is the youngest sibling of the current king, and spends the bulk of her time resenting her spoiled brothers’ freedom and wishing she could do more to help her country. When the family is abruptly called to court, Cazaril’s job shifts from tutor and letter-writer to Iselle’s only real ally, and together he, she, and her lady-in-waiting Betriz try to unravel a huge conspiracy and, eventually, supernatural curse that damns the royal family, including Iselle.
One of the amazing things about this book, and god my standards have gotten low, is that people tell each other things. Caz, Iselle, and their allies are constantly exchanging information, planning, and interpreting events together. None of this nonsense “I have to protect you by keeping you in the dark”. Caz, Iselle, and Betriz are largely treated as emotional equals, and even though Caz is 35 and the girls are 19 he listens to them, admires their wits, and takes advice as well as gives it. In fact, a significant part of the plot hinges on the hell that breaks loose precisely because Iselle’s mother, Ista, wasn’t told about the royal family curse when she married into it, and then when she tries to tell other people and get help she’s treated as a hysterical woman. (There’s also a really well-done scene where the evil chancellor dude tries to undermine Iselle’s social position by taking every emotional reaction she has after he brother’s death and using it as proof that she’s mentally unstable — crying? Clearly too emotional. Stoic? Clearly incapable of proper emotion. Smiling? Clearly unaffected by the horror. You can tell Bujold has a looooot of experience with this type of gaslighting.)
Cazaril was basically the perfect protagonist. He had a tough past without being grimdark or nihilistic, he was active without being reckless, intelligent without being prescient, and had the right mix of foreknowledge of the world and out-of-the-loop-ness from being a captive that meant the reader got just the right amount of info. I also really appreciated that as the book went on and things got more and more insane that his dialogue got less and less formal and more sarcastic and tired. It made him feel like a real person losing their grip on an impossible situation instead of a protagonist trying to save the day. Shonen this was not.
I also thought this book (and the series as a whole, really) was a good example of the ‘good but not unrealistic’ ending that I personally feel is the most true-to-life. People die, people suffer, the world changes irreparably, but life goes on, too, and people build a better tomorrow, and there are weddings and babies and such even as everyone braces themselves to clean up the messes the struggle left behind.
Which is actually a nice segue into the second book. It was really logical if not necessary to pick up Ista’s story, as she was the one character who didn’t get a real conclusion at the end of Curse despite the fact that her whole situation was both tragic and fascinating. Paladin of Souls picks up with Ista three years after the conclusion of the first book, though as I said, the novel stands on its own perfectly well. It follows her escape from her well-meaning but condescending and restrictive household, her confronting her own power, and learning to take an active role in her own world.
Ista escapes by arranging a fake pilgrimage, but shortly into the journey her party is unexpectedly ambushed by a (very) lost battalion from a nearby hostile nation. As she struggles to make sure she and her entourage survive, she struggles against increasingly urgent messages from one of the gods telling her to use her latent psychic abilities to save the day.
The supporting cast here really shined, especially dy Cabon, Liss, and Foix. I think Foix was probably my favorite (non-Ista) character. Ista moves from using the people around her as a means to freedom to caring about them as people, and we follow her through that — when she decides she’ll go as far as to answer the call of gods she hates for their sake, it feels real because the supporting cast feels so real.
Cattilara was a really interesting character. In a society that trains highborn ladies to be frivolous and man-crazy, she’s the ideal, but even in her awful selfishness and ignorance it’s clear she has her own type of strength, and then the last we hear of her is in her taking charge in the fortress, implicitly realizing that life goes on even when the man you’ve attached yourself to dies. She’s also a phenomenally frustrating and even unlikable character, but she’s supposed to be, and I think pushing through that as an author in order to break down the tropes surrounding the female waif who dies without a man is important. I also thought it was a really good decision to contrast her with the disillusioned Ista, who saw that the promises young women are made are largely lies, and ones they will suffer for, but who basically spends her adulthood, especially this story, finding out that women aren’t doomed, and there is a life beyond the lies of the fairy tale. Everything she says to Cattilara she says from experience, and that makes it powerful instead of being didactic.
I also thought Cattilara’s constant insistence that Ista was an evil witch trying to murder her/tear her marriage apart/help their enemies was a good commentary on the way women are trained to see each other as competitors. It’s only when she finally takes Ista’s words as that of a comrade that she can overcome her own challenges. This is nicely lined up with Ista’s renewed sympathy for the ladies of her household at the end of the novel.
And then on the other side you have Joen, who responded to the same social conditions by sacrificing everything for power, even the people she wanted to protect in the first place. Ista even explicitly wonders how different she would have been in a world that let ambitious young women lead instead of forcing them to follow.
Most importantly, from just a Cool perspective, it’s hard to beat Ista literally eating demons.
I was a smidge disappointed that the third book wasn’t GodIsta and SuperFoix awesoming through the countryside, but that perhaps would not be the most enthralling plot from a more objective point. Instead, the third book is set some 250 years earlier, though once agan Bujold and I seem to have felt the same aspect of the previous book was ideal for its own novel, since while this isn’t about Foix, it is about soul-melding and such. This is the book that gets the closest to being actual romance but that’s still such a small part of everything that’s going on that I think it sells the book as a whole really short. As Mr. Act and the dogs can attest, I literally could not put this one down (“You need to eat dinner” “I need to FINISH THIS GODDAMN BOOK, GOD MIKE”).
The character drama here was once again where the book really shined, though I think it was more plot-heavy than the previous two. The book opens with the murder of an exiled prince by a woman he tried to rape. The woman, Ijada, is to be escorted to the capital for trial, and the man in charge of the investigation and escort is courtier Ingrey. We soon find out that the dead prince was involved in occult magic, and before his death sacrificed a leopard whose spirit became bound to Ijada. Ingrey is unsettled, as he, too, was the victim of a cult rite gone wrong as a child and now harbors a wolf spirit. That the two of them would end up meeting like this seems too much to be a coincidence, and indeed it is not.
The book has some really great side characters, especially Hallana. Also nice to see a surprise trope inversion, as the whole “helpless pregnant victim woman” thing doesn’t get tumbled on its head enough. I also really liked the message that she and Oswin could love each other not in spite of the fact that they disagree about things, but because they have so much respect each other’s differing opinions and work; the idea that good relationships come from people who are identical in every way is a bad trope and it should feel bad.
I really loved these three books. They have shot up to the top ten or so of my favorite fantasy series list.
However, for some reason, instead of writing a fourth novel, Bujold decided to continue the series by writing six interconnected novellas. Even more baffling, she decided to only do 250-copy print runs with a tiny publisher who sold them for $25+ each. The result is that in order to get copies of the rest of the series, you need to drop like $100 per book on the aftermarket, which is phenomenally annoying. I hate reading long-form stuff digitally so even though I’d love to continue the series I probably won’t unless they’re released like normal books one day.
I will, however, go back and read her first fantasy novel, The Spirit Ring, and her more recent, uh, quadrogy (??), The Sharing Knife and report back in, because she’s one of the most enthralling writers I’ve ever found.