The Curse of Chalion
Lois McMaster Bujold

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

I seem to keep coming up with new ways to categorize my books. A couple years ago it was books I’m glad I didn’t spend money on. Today it’s books I can’t believe I haven’t reviewed yet, starting with the poster child of books I know like the back of my hand, The Curse of Chalion. I first read this book in high school or college and have loved it wildly ever since, and I’m at the point in my life where I don’t need to reread it in order to review it, though if I’m being perfectly honest I’m probably going to get started the minute I finish this review.

Loosely inspired by the early lives of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, The Curse of Chalion is set in a fantasy version of fifteenth-century Spain. The map’s been flipped around a bit, but all of the countries have real-world counterparts. These are the most important ones, without which nothing in this review is going to make a damn bit of sense.

Chalion Castile
Ibra Aragon and Catalonia
Roknar A northern territory comprising independent provinces Jokona, Borasnen, Vardo, Tavaki, and Jarn. Roknar also includes the Roknari Archipelago even farther north, which is not shown in the book. Roknar is closest to North Africa if we’re looking at it geographically, or “Moorish Andalusia,” as described by the author.
Brajar Portugal
Darthaca France

Chalion, Ibra, and Brajar worship a celestial family composed of five gods, individually known as the Mother of Summer, the Father of Winter, the Daughter of Spring, the Son of Autumn, and the Bastard, god of disasters and all things out of season. (Yes, that is an unfortunate name, but He is what He is.) This branch of faith is called Quintarianism, while the Quadrene faith practiced in Roknar cuts out the Bastard, who is considered a demon rather than a god. All good Quintarians despise Quadrenes as heretics, and vice versa, and this conflict forms the base of the ongoing violence between the Quintarian kingdoms (called royacies) and the Quadrene princedoms. The Quintarians have been at war with the Quadrenes ever since the first Roknari invasion, but about fifty years ago they fell into a deadlock with the assassination of the Golden General, a brilliant warrior who managed to unite the Roknari princedoms for the first time in their history. In the aftermath of his death, the princedoms fell apart again, and they have spent the last generation fighting each other and raiding Quintarian borders while Ibra has been consumed by civil war and Chalion and Brajar by incompetent leadership. I promise I’m going somewhere with this.

In the middle of this holy mess is Chalionese ex-soldier Lupe dy Cazaril, formerly titled Castillar (a minor knight or baron) but currently without land, status, friends, or even distant relations. His life got off to a fine start – he served as a page in the castle of the Provincar (governor) of the province of Baocia as a child, and joined the military as a young man – but quickly fizzled in the neverending war against the Quadrenes to the north. At thirty-five, he has spent the last decade fighting the Roknari in one disastrous battle after another. While his former commanders made out like bandits, Cazaril’s military career ended abruptly when he was sold to a Roknari corsair as a galley slave, and he now wants nothing to do with politics, war, or the sea. His fortunes change dramatically when an Ibran galley runs his corsair down, and, after a period of convalescence, he returns to the town of Valenda in the hopes of finding undemanding work in the kitchens of the Provincar’s widow. His optimism is rewarded when the Dowager Provincara welcomes him into her household, but is just as quickly dashed when she names him secretary-tutor to her granddaughter Iselle, an impetuous, iron-willed sixteen-year-old.

Things don’t seem too bad at first: the household is peaceful, there’s food three times a day, and nobody seems inclined to chain Cazaril to an oar. Life becomes quite pleasant, and, though initially uncertain of his place, Cazaril finds that he enjoys teaching Iselle and her best friend/handmaiden, the nineteen-year-old Lady Betriz dy Ferrej. The only disturbance comes from the Dowager Royina Ista, daughter of the Provincara and mother of Iselle, who is rumored to have lost her mind in the royal court of Chalion; but, since he rarely sees her, she doesn’t trouble him much. His position is made easier by the fact that Iselle, though the firstborn child of the late Roya Ias and Dowager Royina Ista, is not expected to play much of a role in the Chalionese royal court; any such role would fall to her fourteen-year-old brother Teidez. Unbothered by anything more pressing than a growing mutual attraction between himself and Betriz, Cazaril has a few months of absolute tranquility before the politics he’s been avoiding show up on his doorstep in the form of a letter from the reigning Roya Orico, eldest son of Roya Ias and adult half-brother to Iselle and Teidez. Having failed to conceive an heir of his own with his wife, the Royina Sara, Orico instead summons Iselle and Teidez to his court, where he officially names Teidez the heir to the throne of Chalion.

This is a disaster from Cazaril’s point of view, because the military commanders who betrayed him to the Roknari are now severely corrupt officials in Orico’s court: Martou dy Jironal has become the Chancellor of Chalion, second-in-command only to Orico, and his younger brother Dondo has been given free rein over the military. Despite Cazaril’s earlier plans to keep his head down, the political plots swirling around him become intensely personal when Orico betroths Iselle to Dondo, a repulsive forty-year-old who is not an appropriate match in any way. Desperate and out of both time and options, Cazaril prays to the Bastard for a miracle of death magic. He fully expects that both he and Dondo will die in the execution of the miracle, but instead wakes up the next morning to find that Dondo has died as scheduled while he, Cazaril, has become a holy saint, and the host for a larger miracle than he ever expected. As the human avatar of the Daughter of Spring, he is tasked with breaking the death curse laid upon the House of Chalion by the Golden General, but has zero material support aside from the advice given by Orico’s Roknari groom, Umegat, himself a saint of the Bastard. His task becomes exponentially more difficult when Teidez unexpectedly dies, making Iselle the heir of Chalion, and then more difficult still as Martou dy Jironal begins to assert control over Iselle.

There follows a maelstrom of sinister plots, attempted assassinations, religious theory, and possible treason, which culminates in Cazaril riding to Ibra. While he secretly negotiates Iselle’s marriage to Bergon dy Ibra, the fifteen-year-old heir of Ibra, Iselle and Betriz escape the capital in the middle of the night and find relative safety with Iselle’s maternal uncle, the Provincar of Baocia, in the town of Taryoon. Upon Cazaril’s return to Chalion, Iselle and Bergon marry in Taryoon, and, with their marriage, unite Chalion and Ibra in one territory called Chalion-Ibra. Frenzied with terror over his rapidly decreasing influence, Martou attacks Taryoon, but all attempts to bring Iselle back under his control fail hideously when Cazaril – in partnership with the Daughter of Spring – manages to break the curse of Chalion. Martou dies during the breaking of the curse; Iselle and Bergon move to the capital to claim the throne after Orico’s death, and Cazaril is returned to Valenda, where he spends some time recovering from the trauma of his ordeal. Upon recovery, he joins Iselle in the capital and is named Chancellor of Chalion, and, finally freed from the supernatural barriers that were preventing him from pursuing a formal courtship, marries Betriz.

I cannot say this enough: I love this book. The story, the characters, and the setting are superb. The writing is wonderful, aside from the dialogue, which admittedly is not Bujold’s strong suit. In this case it’s a little stiff, but it’s nowhere near as bad as I’ve seen it get in some of Bujold’s other books, so it doesn’t bother me enough to complain about it. The heaviness of the general plot is leavened by a skillful humor, which prevents the book from becoming too dark, too depressing, or – worse – too dull. It is, all in all, an extraordinarily well-crafted book. But, even though I could crow over the writing and the storytelling all day, the greatest triumph is the characters. I love Cazaril. In the early stages of his career he is, by his own admission, an arrogant young ass, but by the time we meet him he is far wiser, gentle-hearted, humbled by his experiences but not truly broken. He always chooses the kindest path, but, in situations in which kindness is not really practical, is still capable of making hard decisions. I love his friendship with Umegat, a wise soul who gives him a much-needed safe space when his world seems to be crashing in on him; and I love that he doesn’t forget about him in the end, even when Umegat has lost almost everything and can no longer act as a safe haven. (I cry every time Umegat realizes he can no longer read. That scene is heartwrenching. But it’s so well done.) I really love that, in an environment in which everyone makes a point of telling him that Royina Ista has lost her marbles, he never truly believes her mad. He listens to her and tries to understand her even when he has no idea what she’s talking about – and, for the record, all of her speech does make sense when you know how to listen to her – and I really respect the hell out of him for that.

Then there is Iselle, brilliant, confident, honest, a symbol of hope and peace in a royacy broken by war and corruption. Though she makes some impulsive political missteps – she is, after all, only sixteen – she is never stupid. She matures tremendously during just the one year, growing from a sheltered princess to the leader her people need. We really need more female characters like her because, again, she is never stupid, and she actually does stuff. She doesn’t waste her time waiting for her enemies to make their move; she assesses them quietly and then makes plans of her own, and those plans actually work. The marriage to Bergon is her own idea. The contract that unites Chalion and Ibra is her idea. Cazaril’s hasty ride to Ibra to negotiate her marriage the literal night her brother dies is her idea, I mean, holy shit. She is supported by the equally wonderful Betriz, who runs the more practical end of Iselle’s plans with a steady, competent hand. Nor are they defined solely by their strength of will; they are silly and loving and athletic and kind-hearted and so many other things. They are not soulless plot vehicles; they are living, breathing women. Even with everything that happens to them and around them, they never forget that they are still friends. There’s no pointless cattiness or backstabbing, or even mild bickering. They have each other’s backs in every aspect of their lives, and it’s beautiful.

If there is one thing that bothers me, it is Iselle’s future plans for the Roknari. I say “Roknari” rather than “Quadrenes” because this is more about race than it is about religion, in addition to which the Roknari seem to be the only group who identify as Quadrene. In the real world, they would be the North African Muslims who were expelled from Spain en masse during the Spanish Inquisition. It isn’t an exact parallel because Quintarianism and Quadrenism are different branches of the same religion, and this is certainly not a frame-by-frame recreation of the real-world Catholic campaign against Judaism and Islam. Even so, it bugs me because, though the stated goal is to end the self-perpetuating cycle of violence by uniting the Chalionese royacies and the Roknari princedoms, the unification method of choice is conquest. I kinda need to know what the plan is after the princedoms are conquered. I know from the sequel that Chalion-Ibra will begin to invade the Roknari princedoms within the next few years, most notably launching a campaign to capture the Roknari port Visping for Chalionese-Ibran use, and I am reasonably confident that it will go well. But what happens afterwards? Do the Quintarians negotiate some sort of peace contract with the conquered princedoms and then withdraw, or do they stay on as rulers and possible colonists, or do they drive the Roknari from the continent altogether?

If the plan is to live and let live, great. I’m fine with that. There’s no mention of forcing Quadrenes to convert to Quintarianism or of expelling Quadrenes from the royacies, and there’s definitely no mention of colonizing Roknari territories, which is good; but on the other hand, the foundation of Quadrenism is considered one of the greatest heresies in Quintarianism, which is why I am concerned. It’s not that Quintarians are disproportionately lauded as models of ethics and civility – Orico’s court is filled with untrustworthy, gold-digging courtiers hired by the dy Jironals, and the other royacies have their own issues. It’s more that Quadrene practices are consistently depicted as homophobic and barbaric, while the Quintarians are supposed to be more moderate. It almost feels as if the book is trying to present a version of the Inquisition that can be justified, by portraying the Roknari as invasive, and Quadrenism as the kind of religion that cheerfully rapes and dismembers heretics in advance of burning them at the stake. (And, no, I’m not okay with rape, dismemberment, or stake-burning. But that also doesn’t justify the potential imposition of Quintarian rule upon Quadrene territories.)

I think I would judge the Roknari situation more softly if I didn’t know it was inspired by a real-world atrocity. This is one instance where it would have been better if it really had just been two made-up religions in a made-up world, but, since the book is so heavily inspired by actual history, it cannot be viewed as completely separate. The Spanish Inquisition was a very real and very ugly part of the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand, and the ghost of it can be seen, however faintly, in Iselle and Bergon’s war. And, to be inescapably clear, I would love to be wrong. I would love nothing more than for the Mother and the Father and their whole holy family to descend on me from a cloud and tell me I’ve got it completely wrong, and that Iselle’s and Bergon’s intentions for post-war Roknar are completely benign. And if that ever does happen, I really hope I’ll be able to believe them.