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.
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.