January 21st, 2011


"The Curse of Chalion" by Lois McMaster Bujold

This (book 2) was the January book for calico_reaction's book club, this year she's choosing based on an alphabetical list of books she owns but hasn't read. So I'm guessing we should get a lot of variety :) This is a book I already owned, and have read 2 or 3 times before. I think I must've bought it when I was buying everything by Bujold I could get my hands on - I have several of the Vorkosigan books, this is the only one of hers not in that series that I've bought. I fell out of the habit of buying stuff by her tho, and I'm not sure why other than that I stopped buying as many books while we were adjusting to my not working. It's not just Bujold, there're several series I have beginnings of or authors I have most of, but I haven't got up-to-date with.

I remembered enjoying it before, and definitely did so again - I pretty much read it straight through on Tuesday afternoon (and that's in fact what happened to Tuesday's LJ entry, I'd meant to write something but just kept on reading). The book is fantasy, and is set in a medieval European type setting - but it's far from generic medievaloid stuff. The acknowledgements at the front mention a particular history course & professor, and then wikipedia tells me it was inspired by her study of medieval Spain. And it certainly feels like Bujold has an awareness that it's not going to be all fun & games living in such a world. The brutal lack of adequate medicine is definitely there, and a plot point more than once. And the role of & restrictions on high-born women in such a world are also very vividly there, it made me think of the Stross books I read last year - where the heroine is thrust into a world where a large part of what the world is interested in is who she will marry & bear children for. Also reminiscent of the Stross books were the politics - not the details, but how it all (blatantly) revolved around people to a much higher degree than "modern" politics. Who'd insulted whom, who is related to who, that sort of thing. (Obviously as I read this book first, it should've been that the Stross books reminded me of this one, but it's been a while so I'd forgotten.)

There's also magic, and the gods are real. But the gods can't just swoop in and do what they want - they must act via the people of the world, when they wish to do so. People who are touched by a god are called "saints", they very much still have free will, but when they choose to do what the gods were hoping for then the god can act through them. Magic also seems to exist as something seperate to this god-interaction, where you follow the right ritual and then the outcome happens. The early example in this book is death magic - where you follow a ritual and effectively summon a demon who takes both your soul and the soul of your victim off to hell. But even so, it's involving the gods & part way through the book it's explained that this will only actually happen if the victim deserves to die, it's a miracle of justice, not a way to kill someone in your way. I liked the religious pantheon, too - there's the Father, the Daughter, the Mother & the Son who are each linked with a season, as well as professions (for instance the Mother & midwives, or the Son & soldiers). And then there's the Bastard, who is outside of this and looks after everything left over (including death magic, homosexuals, bastards).

The story itself follows Cazaril and it feels at the start of the book like this is where most stories end - he's returning to his childhood home after some (rather unpleasant) adventures, and is hoping to be taken in effectively to live out his retirement. He'd been a soldier, an officer, but wasn't ransomed with the other officers (politics and personal politics rearing their heads), instead he was sold as a galley slave. His eventual rescue only happens after he's been broken (physically & mentally), and it's not because he's super-special that he gets rescued either, it's practically accidental. So there he is, on the road home, beat up & broken and unsure of what happens next - and that's where we join the story. Clearly, it's not the end of the story, but it's not the beginning either, Cazaril's backstory is important. And not just important in making him the man he is, but important for the plot too. And the plot itself is about politics, and the gods, and a bit of romance too. And about how maybe you won't always enjoy what you need to do, or the price you'll need to pay for something, but sometimes you just have to do it regardless.

I'm glad I was reminded I own this book, and prompted to fish it out for a re-read. I really should pick up the other two in the trilogy (I've read the second one before, but only from the library).
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