The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold

1226This was a slightly weird one for me. I’ve had it recommended to me by quite a few people over several years, not with any particular blurb, just that it was very good. What I actually got when I started reading, then, surprised me, because it felt like very… pat fantasy. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting in its place, given that no one had said anything to me about what it was actually about, but I guess I just thought it would be something… less obvious? Less tropey? It was an odd place to be, in any case.

I ended up rating it 4/5, which sounds like it means I came to see how wrong this assessment of mine was… but that’s not the case. The five star system really doesn’t leave enough space for nuance. It was definitely a low 4, because I didn’t want to give it 3 (my rating of “meh, I guess” or “the shitty bits are outweighed by moments of great”), because it isn’t a meh book. I enjoyed reading it, and got through it pretty quickly once I actually started reading. But it felt… like just a step up from Trudi Canavan or something. Competent, pleasant trash without sufficient substance to be anything more than that. 7/10, I’d say, if Goodreads had a better system.

The setting felt pretty pat fantasy to me – pseudo-medieval pseudo-Europe, courts and religion and politics and princesses, you know the drill. I was told afterwards that there’s a specific link to Spanish history, but I didn’t really notice it while reading (though it definitely tends toward a Mediterranean flavour in the naming etc.), and I don’t think it’s sufficiently important to make a difference – we’re not talking Guy Gavriel Kay here. There’s nothing particularly wrong with such a traditional setting, but it didn’t exactly rush up and grab me either. You know what you’re getting, and that’s what you get. It’s relatively well done, but nothing stellar, just a sturdy, readable example of that.

Likewise, the characters are pretty well done, a bit run of the mill, but definitely feel like actual humans. The protagonist – Cazaril – is plausibly a man with a Hard Past who has seen many difficulties in life and struggles with them in his present. He’s got problems that do affect him daily as a result of his experiences, and that’s dealt with well. He’s also a pleasant enough personality who I liked riding along with well enough (except the couple of bits where I didn’t reeeeally need to know what was going on in his “loins”). But if you come back to me in a year? I’m not going to really remember him, or any of the other characters, pleasant as they were, except maybe a vague “yeah I think they were alright?”. They didn’t have any sort of real impact on me.

Likewise, the plot is your standard court politicking with a bit of magic thrown in. Again, it’s perfectly competently done, but there’s nothing stand-out to make you point to the book and go “omg this”.

I did have the misfortune to be spoiled on one of the parts where there was actual tension, so I can’t really comment on how effective that would have been. I think I would have assumed the book was going the other way on the issue than it eventually did, but it’s hard to say for sure when I knew what was coming. It felt like there would have been some decent suspense and it would have carried through well, so that’s good. But it’s the only part of the book that I really felt had that.

All of this isn’t to say it’s badly done – it’s really not – and she completely avoids the issue of the bad guy(s) being caricatures. She works well on making them just as human and plausible as her protagonist and allies, and giving them real motivations so their choices felt natural. They weren’t characters I sympathised with or enjoyed, and it’s not a case that their actions were plausibly good, but they made sense, and that’s a good bar to have crossed. They gave the plot a decent opposition from fairly early on without letting it slip too easily into obviousness, or forcing one to assume that all allies of the antagonist were naturally evil, as they would have to be to ally themselves with such a monster. There was a general sense of concern for motivation, some of which, I imagine, comes out of that link to real historical events (however tenuous).

So far, so forgettable. But there was one aspect of the book that did stand out for me… and not in a good way – the religion.

Initially, it feels exactly like any other fantasy religion. You have a limited pantheon with strictly delineated roles, and whose existence is in no question for they have reliable and demonstrable interactions with the world. And if you just leave it at that, I already dislike it. Because the way that fantasy often writes religion – as gods who are “real” and act – leaves no room for faith as it is in the real world. Where is belief when your god lets you zap a man with a fireball? It strips the complexity out of a lot of real-world religion, leaving it more as a different flavour of magic, which feels deeply unsatisfying for me. And the book is, in some ways, striving for realism – you get actual rituals and a feeling of the yearly calendar of events within the church that feels more true to life than often is the case, and more present in the lives of its adherents likewise – and so this feels all the more frustrating. There’s one moment, where the archdivine (head of the church) explains a small point of theology central to the actions of one particular character, and the complexity it brought to the plate was refreshingly realistic… but the contrast to the whole of the rest of the book’s unnatural simplicity of religion was jarring, and made the incompleteness of it all the more apparent.

But her religion also feels an alarming lack of personality – the people within it just don’t act like people, and that’s wrong. The central faith follows five gods – the Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter and the Bastard. Most clergy are in the service of one of these gods, all of whom have their strictly delineated roles and purviews. And there is no infighting at all. None. Ever. Everyone gets along with the other factions and is all jolly and co-operative and there’s never a fight over whether this particular obscure sphere of life actually belongs to the Mother or the Father that’s turned into a source of ongoing theological tension between the factions for the last three centuries and caused a schism. I don’t believe it. There’s also one group of people who don’t worship the fifth god – great, actual schism! Fantastic. Finally some plausibility. But then you think about it for a moment and… wait… this is a world when the gods’ existence is without question because they demonstrate their powers at predictable and reliable points. Their avatars claim the dead at funerals. And so how… do you have a faction that cuts out a god when that god’s existence is beyond argument? It makes no sense.

Now, the book is not centrally focussed on religion, but religion is a very important part of it, and I found myself time and again being confused by just how simplistic it was. Faith, as a major sphere of human action, just isn’t simple. People aren’t simple. So you have to build your faith and the people who comprise it as a realistic model of the complexity of real human characters and activity, or it just feels hollow and fake (looking at you Game of Thrones and tbh literally nearly all fantasy ever).

And this, for me, is what let the book down most of all. Without it, it would have been enjoyable, forgettable trash that I’d have happily given a 4 to without qualms and run off to read the rest of the series in a week, before forgetting the entire plot within two months. And I’d have had fun with that. As it stands, it does still get a 4… but very much on the lower end, and with caveats. I’ve been told the second book, Paladin of Souls, is the better of the series, and I probably will go ahead and read it… but only because I trust the person telling me that quite a lot.

And this is kind of what’s confused me about the whole thing. People – ones I trust on books, and whose opinions are normally enough for me to go “ok, yep, that book” – have strongly encouraged me to read this. And I just don’t get… why. I don’t see anything special in it, anything that isn’t “just another fantasy book”. It’s not bad… it’s not annoying or wrong, for the most part… but nor is it in any way notable. And so I’m just really confused why they’re all so keen, and sat here feeling like I’ve somehow missed something. Huh.

Coming up next – the final Nebula nominee Jade City by Fonda Lee. Fingers crossed it manages to be sufficiently not awful that I endorse it wholeheartedly for the win. After that, I have a couple of books loaned to me that I want to get through, and then I’ll read the two uniquely Hugo nominated books, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson and The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. If I’m honest, I’m really not interested in either of them, but we’ll see, I could be surprised. Fingers crossed.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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