Fantasy, Heroism, Flaws: The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold

I used an Audible credit to get Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion because when it was featured recently in a Dear Author “deals” post, so many readers whose taste I respect chimed in to say they love it, and that the audio version was great (the e-book deal wasn’t available in Canada). And then I moved it right to the top of my listening list because of this post by Natalie.

The audio was, indeed, very good (though I thought the narrator, Lloyd James, sometimes paused in odd/confusing places in sentences). I loved the book so much that now I want a print copy so I can experience it more completely. Because I can’t quote passages or even spell a lot of the character and place names correctly, I’m not going to write a proper review. Instead, here are three things I thought a lot about as I listened.

1. Reading Fantasy

I read a lot of fantasy as a kid. And then, in early high school, I pretty much stopped. Perhaps I felt I had outgrown elves and swords and magic, but that shows how narrow my idea of “fantasy” was, and that’s the real reason I stopped reading. I didn’t have guides to speculative fiction that might appeal to me. As an adult, I re-read favorite children’s fantasy books, and when I started teaching children’s lit, I found guides online who helped me discover more great fantasy fiction written for children; I read and loved a lot of it. And yet still I didn’t feel that fantasy (or sci fi) written for adults had anything to offer me.

Eventually I met readers online who loved “adult” speculative fiction; thanks to them (to some of you who are reading this), I dipped a toe in here and there, but I’m not sure I found anything I loved. Well. Curse of Chalion was a penny-dropping, frying-pan-over-the-head book for me, because it made me see that obviously, obviously, there is something for me in speculative fiction. Sometimes I’m a slow learner.

2. Heroism

The book’s central character is Cazaril, who in the opening scene is an ex-soldier, ex-galley slave, nearly ex-everything, walking back to the castle where he was once a page and hoping for a position in the scullery. He’s not above picking up a coin from the mud. He becomes not a scullion but tutor-secretary to the young princess, and eventually a whole lot else. (I don’t want to say too much, because Bujold’s slow, masterful unfolding of Cazaril’s backstory and of the political and religious world in which he moves is a great strength of her storytelling).

Natalie commented in her post that “a lot of writers would have chosen to write about Iselle or Bergon more directly, instead of letting someone like Cazaril take center stage. They certainly wouldn’t have put most of the action off-stage the way Bujold does.” Cazaril is a much less romantic figure than the young royals, and his heroism is of a very different kind. He is, essentially, a servant–as a courtier, and in his relationship to the gods. Curse of Chalion reminded me just a little of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Cazaril’s character and motivations are very different from Cromwell’s, but both books foreground men who are usually considered to be “behind the scenes,” while royalty are relegated to secondary characters.

I guess Cazaril is a “typical” fantasy hero, in that he’s an underdog or an unlikely hero, but his selfless servant model of heroism seems unusual to me. Actually, maybe it’s not so unusual in fantasy *thinks of ending of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings,* but it doesn’t get much attention or praise in our culture. Bujold presents this kind of heroism in an overtly theological context: the gods can only work through people if people turn their wills over to the gods. These ideas aren’t totally alien to me as a Christian, but the fantasy world Bujold creates allows her to explore them without bringing a lot of Christian “baggage” or controversy along. They aren’t themes I see explored much in secular realist fiction, though it’s not only religious people who sacrifice themselves for the greater good. I’m really not doing this part of the book justice; it spoke to me very personally and deeply, especially just at the moment. It was the right book at the right time, and that’s part of why I loved it.

3. “Flawed” Characters

While I was reading Curse of Chalion I had a Twitter conversation about it in which I said that Cazaril seemed like one of the most fully human characters I had encountered in a long time. The word “flawed” came up in the discussion, but I’m not sure it’s the right one. Romance is often seen as a character-driven genre, but I think when romance-readers discuss characters in reviews and blog posts, we (and I do include myself) can fall into describing a character as an envelope into which an author has stuffed a few key traits (2 good things + 1 flaw = redeemable hero).

Romance characters also tend to follow a particular kind of arc: the “flaw” is something that keeps the couple apart and thus has to be overcome. Characters get redeemed and their flaws are fixed in order to earn love or through being loved.

Of course in good romances, the characterization is not so crude, nor do all characters in romance follow the same kind of arc. Weaker books in other genres have similar problems with characterization. But I do think other genres allow different kinds of characterization and character development than are possible in romance, though they probably have their own limitations. That’s why I could never be a single-genre reader.

What struck me about Cazaril was how very different from a romance hero’s his character arc is. He doesn’t really change, though I’d say he grows. He learns how he will have to act in order to serve Chalion and its royal family as he wants to. His understanding deepens. His mistakes come not so much from character “flaws” that need “fixing” as from imperfect understanding of his situation. Like any human dealing with the gods (or fate, or big life choices), he suffers from limited perceptions and guesses wrong sometimes.

Cazaril is imperfect and broken because he’s human. And his acceptance of that imperfection makes him good enough for his gods. I thought of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem:” “There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” And that’s why I loved this book so much.

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24 Responses to Fantasy, Heroism, Flaws: The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold

  1. Merrian says:

    Lovely post Liz. I wonder about the meaning of place – physical interior/exterior, gendered spaces, home & wider world, personal inner space with the outer/physical body in Caz’ story? Caz brings all that he is, shaped by his experience in the outer/man’s world of action home with him. It isn’t until he comes back to this one place and into this women’s world that he becomes his fully integrated Self and from that integrated place comes his care and protection and love. It is his ability to be liminal, standing on borders that is his great strength.

  2. jmc says:

    In one of Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, a character (maybe Cordelia?) says, “Since no one is perfect, it follows that all great deeds have been accomplished out of imperfection. Yet they were accomplished, somehow, all the same.” Which I think encapsulates Bujold’s hero(ine)s generally.

    The Curse of Chalion was recommended to me on the old AAR boards when I was lamenting a lack of fiction set in medieval Spain. I was very impressed with the way Bujold took the setting and twisted it a little, and the religion she created. Normally I run far and fast from any plot in which gods are overtly involved, but it was so well-integrated that it worked here.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I thought the theology/religion was really well integrated too. And it makes sense in a book based on a medieval society.

      I have just read the first two Vorkosigan books so far, but it seems obvious that honor and heroism are central concerns in her work.

  3. Barb in Maryland says:

    And now you need to read “Paladin of Souls”, which is Ista’s story. I love it almost as much as I love “Curse of Chalion”.
    I just finished my umpteenth re-read of “Curse” because of Natalie’s review. I am always struck by how thoroughly thoughtful the theology is. And Caz, I just love him to pieces. I am so glad Bujold decided to tell his story..

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Luckily “Paladin” was in the 2 books for 1 credit sale. I am just regrouping my energy before I start it.

    • VacuousMinx says:

      Cazaril feels like what a REAL hero should be, but Bujold doesn’t write him as a “hero,” just as a person. And then you fall in love with him because you can’t help it.

      • kaetrin says:

        Yes, exactly. He didn’t seem anything special at first – in fact he never saw himself as anything particularly special but it didn’t take me long to fall in love with him. I wanted so much to see him happy. His loyalty and honour were so very attractive to me.

  4. sonomalass says:

    I read a lot of fantasy; for many years it was my preferred genre. This book remains a favorite, right up there with Guy Gavriel Kay, which is the highest praise I know.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      So if I wanted to try Kay, where would you recommend starting?

      • VacuousMinx says:

        SonomaLass has read much more Kay than I have, but among the ones I’ve read, The Lions of al-Rassan is my favorite.

      • Natalie L. says:

        I really like the Fionavar Trilogy. Like the bestest of everything of his I’ve read (which hasn’t been everything, not by a long shot).

      • Merrian says:

        Tigana is the book that stands the test of time for me

      • SonomaLass says:

        All of these! ALL THE KAY!! Tigana is amazing, and totally stands alone (his only completely original world). Lions of Al-Rassan has my favorite characters and conflict, and the Fionavar books have that epic save-the-world thing that is so central to traditional fantasy, and he does it brilliantly. All of these make me weep on every re-read, although that’s true of A Song for Arbonne and the Sarantium books too, I just haven’t re-read them quite as often.

  5. I couldn’t stand fantasy anything as a kid–elves, weird names, et al, just made me UEUGH!–and that reaction has held on to this day (I remember kicking and screaming against a 3rd grade reading assignment on A Wrinkle In Time–I still have yet to read that book). I do like speculative fiction, and paranormal of course, but something about fantasy just turns me off and I can’t even pinpoint the reason!

  6. VacuousMinx says:

    Oh, how I love this book. I read it three times in about two years when it came out, and now I want to reread it. I love the way you put Cazaril’s transformation: “his understanding deepens.” That’s exactly it. He’s so tired and mentally worn out when he returns, and he slowly comes back to life and re-engages. (If I’m remembering correctly.)

    I like all the books in the series, but the portrayal of Cazaril really sticks with me. He’s an amazing character.

  7. Liz Mc2 says:

    VM, to follow up on both your comments: the interesting thing about starting the book with Cazaril at a very low point and then slowly revealing backstory as he also heals and moves forward is that you come to understand he’d acted heroically in the past. At first, he doesn’t believe he can be that person again, but slowly he does.

    When you say “she doesn’t write him as a ‘hero,'” maybe that’s the best way to get at how he feels different to me from a romance hero (though I did fall in love with him!). Romance heroes often feel like the writer aimed to create someone who is “hero material” and they have various constraints on them because of that. But real heroes are just people who rise to the occasion, really (though like Cazaril they may be very good people–many are, like him, also humble). Any one of us could be a hero, if we let ourselves be. Maybe. Whereas I feel romance as a whole, as a genre (despite some exceptions) does not believe just any guy can be a hero,

  8. Kathryn says:

    I love this series and especially this book.

    Bujold at one point said that she was planning to do 5 volumes in the series — one for each god in the Quintarian religion. I hope that she does complete the final two volumes — and I hope that one of the final volumes might explore the Quadrene perspective. On religious / theological questions that concern individual’s relationship to the divine and the meaning of the liturgy/religious ritua in one’s lifel and the role of free will/predestination she gives such a nuanced portrait in this series.

    However, if there’s one flaw in the series, I think, it is the first two books in particular seem to set up Quintarian doctrine and practices as morally better/more liberal than the Quadrene doctrine and practices. As a medievalist this binary makes me somewhat uncomfortable since Bujold is clearly drawing upon Spanish history at the time of the Isabella of Castille & Ferdinand of Aragon in both Chalion and Paladin. I’d like to see a less stark binary drawn between her two religions that actually share much in common. She does note that the all-conquering Quadrene general whose death by magic triggers the Chalion curse was special to the Father (a god shared by both religions), but she also places a great deal of emphasis on the violent Quadrene rejection of the Bastard and all that is association with him (especially homosexuality).

    Kay has been more hit and miss for me, but I like the Lions of al-Rassan and think it would be excellent one of his books to start with since it’s another fantasy novel based on Christian/Muslim battles over control of the Iberian peninsula. However it re-imagines the history of El Cid and Ibn Ammar, who lived some 400 years before the Isabella & Ferdinand. Like Chalion it is not an alternative history about Earth but is a history of another place in another universe that looks hauntingly familiar.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      “it is not an alternative history about Earth but is a history of another place in another universe that looks hauntingly familiar”

      This is a great way of putting it, and I did feel I would have gotten more/something different if I had any knowledge of the history she is inspired by. Thanks for filling a little of that in! It would be interesting to see more of the Quadrene doctrine. I also think that I need to read rather than listen to absorb more of what she’s saying about the belief systems.

      One thing that’s interesting about reading fiction based on a medieval world is that religion permeates society, and while characters certainly wrestle with understanding theology and their own relationship to the gods, that’s very different from a modern/contemporary approach to faith (at least in many parts of the world) where people have to seek it out or make a deliberate choice to be believers in a secular world. It allowed a different kind of focus on religion than you often find in fiction, because she didn’t have to account for her characters’ faith in the same way (why believe?).

  9. I really need to read this book.

    That’s all.

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