Many readers may know Bujold through her series of SF novels featuring Miles Vorkosigan (I’ve read three of this series, Shards of Honor, Barrayar and Ethan of Athos), but these two books of hers are set in a fantasy world that is similar to our own, and yet very different. The geography of the countries in which the books are set is roughly based on Spain (Chalion, Ibra and Brajar), with Darthaca standing in for France and the Roknari princedoms and the Archipelago probably representing Moorish Spain and Northern Africa; but that needn’t concern the reader overly. Unlike many fantasy novels and worlds, “magic” in Chalion is based on miracles from the gods, and is rooted in a consistent theology that Bujold explains in more detail in the second book.
The Curse of Chalion begins in the province of Baocia, where Cazaril, once a soldier, is returning after convalescence following a particularly brutal stint in the slave-galleys of Roknar. He hopes to beg a place from the old Provincara, in whose house he was once a page. In fact, she does more, and makes him secretary-tutor to her grand-daughter Iselle, royesse (princess, since she is Roya Orico’s half-sister) of Chalion. Cazaril accepts the offer with trepidation, but soon comes to enjoy his work and becomes devoted to Iselle (who is intelligent, sparky and pragmatic). The reader gradually learns about Cazaril’s history and Chalion’s, the parts that he and Iselle have to play in its future, and the curse which blights the royal family, as well as introducing several elements of comedy amongst the drama.
Bujold’s skill is in characterisation and dialogue, though her word-setting is evocative – Cazaril’s first sight of Valenda, for example, and the party’s arrival at Cardegoss, Chalion’s capital. Cazaril is honourable and principled, finds himself devoted to Iselle and her interests, and we hear enough of his back-story and his motivations to find him a highly sympathetic character. Iselle, too, in her youth and joyousness, is attractive, and Bujold conveys her intelligence too, as well as her self-will (and her despair on finding her half-brother has betrothed her to a man she detests and loathes). But other characters are equally well-drawn, if not occupying such a large space in the narrative, and the world of Chalion is very well drawn. The resolution is satisfying but not in the least contrived.
Paladin of Souls is set three years after the conclusion of the first novel, and a few characters from the earlier novel appear “in person”. The focus here is on Ista, former royina of Chalion and Iselle’s mother (in the earlier novel thought to be mad, and a relatively minor, though important character). At the start of the novel, the funeral for Ista’s mother, the dowager Provincara, has just occurred, leaving Ista restless and purposeless. A brief escape from the castle gives her the idea of a pilgrimage, and she manages to begin this despite the entreaties of the castle warder and numerous ladies in waiting who still have the habit of treating Ista as though she was mad or deluded.
Her pilgrimage becomes hijacked by a Roknari war band, and she and her party find shelter at Castle Porifors. There she is forced to confront (and be forgiven for) the great sin she still feels burdens her, but also finds work and love and a purpose in her life far more fulfilling than wife or mother.
This book is less immediately enthralling than its predecessor, but there are many pleasures, both gentle and thrilling and horrifying, to be had in it. It’s perhaps a more complex read, in which Bujold delves more deeply into the theologies of her created religions and pantheon (a rather small pantheon of five gods), and Ista’s worldview and her fears are not at all as Cazaril’s (the book is seen entirely from her viewpoint, though told in the third person, as ‘The Curse of Chalion’ is seen entirely from Cazaril’s) – understandably so – Ista is a woman, a widow, and so is constrained in a way that Cazaril never was. Again, the characters are beautifully drawn, from Arhys dy Lutez, March of Porifors, to his half-brother Illvin, to the divine Learned dy Cabon and Liss, a courier girl whom Ista hires as her maid, and even the enemies – sorcerers and Roknari soldiers – are sharply written and with understandable motivations. Being concentrated on Ista means that Bujold considers the woman’s role in such a world, but also how one can transcend that limited role.
Chalion as portrayed in the books is an interesting place – riven by constant wars and consequent distrust, but also cultured and relatively sophisticated. Women’s roles tend to the traditional, but they can be distinguished physicians, for example, in one of the gods’ orders (though the temporal respect seems due to the woman having joined one of the orders and hence able to train in such skills). Homosexuality is tolerated in the Quintarian faith common to Chalion, Ibra, Brajar and Darthaca, but punishable by particularly gruesome torture in Roknar, where the Quadrene faith is practised (though the Quadrenes give similar treatment to anyone found dedicated to the Bastard – the fifth god in the Quintarian pantheon, but regarded as a blasphemy by the Quadrenes). It’s not an urban society, either, with most people living in small towns or villages, but still is feudal, and well-organised.
I love these books, and often re-read them, since the satisfaction of reading doesn’t come from unfamiliarity, but from plunging oneself into a sharply-realised world, with engaging companions whose travails the reader cares about. Five stars for both.