Chalion

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.

Anyway.

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.

33 Comments

  1. Jen says:
    Thanks for the review.  I’ve read a few of Bujold’s other books, but although I enjoyed them they never quite clicked for me.  These seem like they might be more my speed.

     

    Cordelia’s Honor might be a good starting off point for her space opera stuff?  I read it back before I knew it was part of a series, but since it takes place before most (all?) of the other books I don’t think there’s anything too confusing in it.  It’s less idealistic than I tend to like my fantasy, and there’s some quasi-gaslighting/refusal to believe the main character that hit some of my Do Not Want buttons, but it’s well written and the characters felt like real people, even the villains.

  2. CrazyEd says:

    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.

    On a scale of one to “my romance clichedar is pinging”, this is a “I swear to god, Rin, if you date the sexy ghost man this marriage is over”. I can totally see why this was marketed as romance even though it’s not.

    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”).

    Since you used the name “Mr. Act” and then “Mike”, I’m just going to interpret this as your dog (Mike) being insistent you eat dinner rather than your husband (Mr. Act).

     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.

    Well, if you’re going to make the book more plot heavy, this is certainly a good premise to base it on. Since you don’t mention it, I take it the “tried to rape” part is handled pretty well?

    1. Act says:

      I can totally see why this was marketed as romance even though it’s not.

      This is part of why it was so odd to me; in an actual Romance book the world would bend over backwards to put him with Ista, because in romance the two most desirable people end up together. In this, he has a crush on her lady-in-waiting and it’s implied they get married after the end of the book, but outside of that the relationship is completely irrelevant to the plot. It’s the opposite of how Romance goes, and I think someone looking for a typical romance plotline would feel pretty cheated here.

  3. Nerem says:
    I’ve only read one of her books a long time ago. Quite liked it. Dunno why she even writes for Baen, but maybe they’re the only ones willing to publish her space opera. Shame, it was well-written.

    Better her than David Weber, at least.

    1. Act says:

      It actually wasn’t Baen — I found those editions easily enough. It was a really tiny specialty publisher called Subterranean Press. You’d think with her track record she could have sold the series to a real publisher and not screwed over readers, but idk.

  4. Xander77 says:
    The Vorkosigan series (Bujold’s space opera) is absolutely amazing. It has exactly two books that even revolve around pew pew space fleets, and exactly two big space battle scenes. Most of the series takes place in an army mad culture, but everything the characters do is about making sure that the incompetence is limited enough that fleet action is unnecessary.

    (It’s also fairly unique in the space opera genre, being written by someone who not only read actual books, but also genuinely understood them)

    A lot of Chalion is… if not recycled exactly, then heavily influenced by the Vorkosigan stories. If you ever do end up reading Shards of Honor, it has quite a bit in common with Paladin of Souls.

    (Both series also deteriorate into inconsequential pieces written mostly by inertia around the same time)

    I’d really appreciate a Vorkosigan readthrough by someone who hasn’t already memorized the books.

    1. Act says:

      Interesting, I might check the first ones out. Just having read Chalion, I find it easy to believe that in any setting her stuff is really character driven, which is what I’m into, so the genre may not matter, ultimately.

      (Both series also deteriorate into inconsequential pieces written mostly by inertia around the same time)

      A few people here said this, and it’s unfortunately but possibly not super surprising to hear, considering how long she’s been writing.

  5. Keleri says:

    YESSSSSSSSSS I love the Chalion series so much. Curse of Chalion is proooobably in my top 5 books of all time. I wasn’t as fond of the third one as Curse and Souls, although I really liked the first few Penric novellas (got the ebooks there).

    Unfortunately Bujold’s main weakness is that she can get sidetracked by romance. Her earlier and tighter-edited books are great, but the stuff she’s been putting out more recently has been… hmmm. In particular, the Penric novellas have shifted to focusing on a drawn-out and boring romance plot with a sprinkling of politics instead of amazing and hilarious (Penric’s bonded demon spirit is A++++++). I’ve also heard some very depressing stuff about the latest Vorkosigan novels.

    I actually don’t really care for the Vorkosigan series– I find Miles really boring although the first two books about Cordelia are great. (The one about the guy from the all-male planet is great as well, lol.) I slogged through SEVERAL Miles books before I admitted defeat, so I gave it a good run. The Sharing Knife I didn’t like either; it has a VERY cool magic system but other than that it’s pure Bujold’s id (age gap romance excessively dwelled on + BABIES BABIES BABIES ending).

    Now, that said, I don’t blame Bujold for getting old and being all “fuck alla y’all Imma write what I want”, cuz #goals, but they’re just not my thing unfortunately.

    1. Act says:

      Yeah this is easily top 10 for me, probably better. I also agree the third one was the weakest — and the closest to traditional romance.

      The Sharing Knife I didn’t like either; it has a VERY cool magic system but other than that it’s pure Bujold’s id (age gap romance excessively dwelled on + BABIES BABIES BABIES ending).

      Now, that said, I don’t blame Bujold for getting old and being all “fuck alla y’all Imma write what I want”, cuz #goals, but they’re just not my thing unfortunately.

       

      Ugh, this is disappointing to hear. I wasn’t bothered by the age gap romance in Chalion since it made sense with the setting (35 – 19 is pretty mild by medieval standards), but I’m super not into that being the focus of everything.

      Tamora Pierce had that weird old-dudes-young-women thing too. I wonder if it’s some kind of cultural remnant us pesky whipper-snappers find bizarre but wouldn’t have been odd growing up in the 60s. Something about this pings as similar to Pierce’s tendency for may-decembers to me, IDK why.

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      1. Keleri says:

        Yeah it feels like all the OG women writers have a fetish permeating everything– MZB: child rape, Anne McCaffrey: ravishment fantasies, Bujold: BABIIIIIIES older man/younger woman, Pierce: older man/younger woman, xenophilia, Cherryh: femdom, Butler: alien forced breeding, Lackey: unicorn voyeurism

        Diane Duane keeps her fetish under wraps, whatever it is (or possibly just writes a ton of fanfic)

        To be fair, so do all the dudes (Jordan: spanking, Ian M Banks: nymphomaniac bisexuals, Piers Anthony: being a fucking pedophile) so it’s just the background radiation of the genre I guess

        1. CrazyEd says:

          All fantasy and sci-fi writers write to put their fetishes into fantasy and sci-fi scenarios. It’s just a matter of how good they are at hiding it.

        2. Farla says:

          I don’t think Piers Anthony is a pedophile. Many pedophiles express a desire to have sex with a hypothetical child that could give informed consent, while he doesn’t care what technical age is involved with the body so long as the brain isn’t there.

  6. Cosmogone says:
    These  sound pretty interesting! The onnly  thing that puzzles me is this:

    “a society that trains highborn ladies to be frivolous and man-crazy”

    How oes this work, though? And why would their society even do this? I get that this is meta commentary on the usual tropes, but I’m not sure omething like this can work on the in-universe level.

     

    1. SpoonyViking says:

      That’s basically the continental Middle Ages. Obviously it could vary between regions and even between individual households (especially with the lower aristocracy), but in general, the lady of the castle did not actually take care of domestic matters.

      1. Cosmogone says:
        Well, see, not really. Women were held to extremely high standards and had tons and tons of responsibilities. They were potrayed as dimwitted, frivolous and man-crazy but not actually encouraged to be so. I’m sure it varied between regions, but yeah, the lady of the househodl was absolutely expected to take care of her husband’s lands. The problem was more that a woman’s accomplishments were severely downplayed and her advice could be dismissed by male relatives at any time.

        The idea of noblewomen as pretty baubles with no responsibilities is a very modern one. Tnh, I’m rather puzzled as to where it comes from and why it’s persistent enough in pop culture it shows up even in more grounded works like ASoIaF.

        1. Nerem says:
          The portrayal probably overtook reality in people’s minds.
        2. SpoonyViking says:

          […] the lady of the househodl was absolutely expected to take care of her husband’s lands.

          Not for the higher aristocracy. You’re forgetting the various household roles performed by men, such as the steward, the chamberlain and the marshal who, between themselves, managed most domestic services. Sure, if we look at the lower aristocracy, much like I said, those duties would necessarily fall to the lady, since their household wouldn’t be rich enough to need or support such specialised roles; but it’s telling that even someone like Christine de Pizan, for instance, who often wrote of how women needed to take charge of domestic affairs in their homes was forced to do so after becoming a widow.

          Obviously, even among the high aristocracy you’re going to have individuals who break the mold, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine or Margaret Paston, but in general, the higher a woman’s birth, the more she was confined to exclusively feminine activities.

          (Again, that’s in continental Europe. It was different among the Norse, for instance.)

          EDIT: Oh, yes: obviously, in long periods of war (such as during the Crusades), the lady of the household would have assumed many more responsibilities. Perhaps you were thinking of that?

          1. Cosmogone says:
            Dude, no, you’re confusing different things. Yes, in higher status households many duties were relegated to stewards and chamberlains, but who do you think was supposed to keep them in check? How would a woman be able to act in her husband’s stead during the time of war if she wasn’t given appropriate education for the task? Seriously, do I have to quote all the books that explicitly mention basic economics as a part of women’s education? You’re confusing women lacking the power to act on their own with them lacking the knowledge. Finally, characteristics like “frivolous” are more about manners than education; something like this absolutely isn’t encouraged in a proper patriarchy.
            1. Act says:

              Just to chime in about the context, Cattilara was very young (17, I think?) and not yet responsible for the household, so had the luxury of only being concerned about her exciting new husband and all the babies they’d have. Her character arc moves through finding out it’s not all sunshine and roses and ends with her stepping up and taking responsibility for the running of the household.

              I got the sense it was more a commentary on the character archetype than on a historical model.

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            2. Cosmogone says:
              Oh, yeah, this actually answers my question. I gathered that she was probably an archetype deconstruction, I just wasn’t really sure it worked with the rest of the world. I also somehow had an impression that the character in question was much older, but the young age makes this plausible. Thanks for the explanation.
              Reply
            3. SpoonyViking says:

              Oh, you’re right, I did misunderstand you. My mistake!

              That said:

              […]  but who do you think was supposed to keep them in check?

              In Capetian France, Plantagenet England and the Holy Roman Empire, it was often the lord himself. It was also far from uncommon for seneschals and similar officers to be left behind even in times of war and run things while the lord was away.

              Reply
            4. SpoonyViking says:

              Oh, and regarding medieval ladies and “frivolous” activities, I direct you to Eileen Power’s “Medieval Women” book which explicitly notes hawking, storytelling, chess, singing and playing, and “witty repartee” as activities taught to courtly ladies.

              Reply
            5. SpoonyViking says:

              Damn, the inability to edit posts is annoying. Martha C. Howell also talks in passing of how ladies of the highest stations wouldn’t have the same economical acumen those beneath them in her “Women, Production and Patriarchy in Late Medieval Cities” book.

              Reply
            6. Cosmogone says:
              Hmm. You know, we probably didn’t understand each other because we had different regions and time periods in mind. Than you, I should look up Howell’s book.
              Reply
    2. Keleri says:

      Expanding on this, the books are very cool in their portrayal of the highborn lady characters wielding power while dealing frankly with their culturally-imposed limitations, and without slipping into paternalistic justifications of sexism. Iselle’s grandmother is the chatelaine of her estate, but she notes aloud that she has great privilege but not great power, and her son is the actual lord of the region (who nonetheless moved his capital when he acquired lordship because he’d never rule in his mother’s house :o)). That said, the women characters fight major battles, as it were, with pens instead of swords, and these are some of the best parts of Curse.

  7. Negrek says:
    I enjoyed the first two books in this series (library only has the first two, lol)! Although I have to admit I had the exact opposite reaction when reading them… I’d always seen them recced as straight fantasy, and as I was reading the first one I said to myself, “Huh, I didn’t realize these were fantasy romance.” XD

    I’m sure they don’t adhere to the same tropes as true romance novels and probably execute the character relationships differently, but there is definitely a WAY higher focus on romance than in what I typically read, heh.

    1. Act says:

      It’s probably also a question of general tastes influencing how overt it seems — I like some light romance and don’t mind stories where the hero gets the girl/guy/both, so when people were specifically saying romance I was mentally ramping it up past my own tolerance and thinking either Romance Romance where the entire world revolved around people getting together or like, shoehorned-in romance, which is does sound like her later stuff is, unfortunately.

      That said, the third one is the closest to traditional romance (though still more plot-heavy than those usually are) so you may not be missing much by not having gotten to it!

  8. Roarke says:

    Curse of Chalion confirmed for good book, so I’ve now read what I assume must be a third or so of this post, since I’m obviously not going to spoil myself for the rest.

      1. Roarke says:

        I really liked it! But I ain’t gonna gush. Especially since I’m kind of liking the second one more than the first already. 

      2. Roarke says:

        Well I finished the second book, read the bit about it in this post, and am crushed to learn we don’t follow Ista for Book 3. I liked her a lot more as protagonist than Cazaril, who was himself pretty damn awesome.

        Ista’s dynamic with the supporting characters was amazing, especially because of how rare it is for the main character to be the oldest/wisest one. Cazaril had this too, with Iselle and Betriz, but I felt it was underutilized for some reason.

        I think it’s partially because it was Caz’s like, job, to teach these two and later do all the administrative stuff for them. Of course he cared about them and went to any length to save them, but that’s not quite what Ista had that I liked so much.

        She just naturally came into contact with these kids and slowly took them all under her wing because she was starved for genuine companionship and they had no preconceived notion of her ‘madness’. Her growing protectiveness of them gave even more depth and flavor to her general return to confidence and authority. It was good.

        Cazaril was strangely amazing as a background character in Book 2. It was hilarious and awesome that he immediately threw his old sidekicks at Ista when told she wanted to leave Valenda. Then at the end of the book when the siege is broken and the enemy princedom is in chaos, Ista’s like “Yeah, if I know Iselle and Cazaril we’re going to invade by the week’s end, so pack up guys.”

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        1. Keleri says:

          The Chalion books are interesting because they correspond to one of the gods in the pantheon (I believe it’s Chalion-Daughter, Paladin-Bastard, and uhhhh third one-Son) but Bujold doesn’t seem to have a Father/Mother book forthcoming. (The Penric books are back to demon shenanigans, which is fine because they’re the most fun/mayyyyybe arguably the “Mother” book since healing magic and the feminine demon but IDK).

          I would really like to read a “Father” book maybe about finding justice after Iselle and Bergon reconquista the Roknari lands and such.

          1
          1. Roarke says:

            That’s another thing – I felt that Bujold’s conceptualization of her pantheon, and the relationship between gods and mortals, really developed between Curse and Paladin. I’ll have to see if that continues in 3. I thought the Bastard was great in Paladin, but we didn’t get as much play from the Daughter in Curse. She really only came up in the end, when Cazaril has his big miracle moment. Beyond that, she was just this unknowable force keeping him alive.

            In Curse, the gods still felt very impersonal. Paladin gives us a huge asshole of a god that Ista never thanks and constantly curses even as she recognizes that yeah he’s totally working for the greater good and is 100% in her corner specifically. The way that he prodded/nurtured her into becoming a cleric/saint is probably one of the most interesting examples of such a concept I’ve ever seen.

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