Wandering around the library on a stormy night, I stumbled across Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (Chalion #1) and its sequel Paladin of Souls on the shelves. I had originally read Chalion at the recommendation of the Internet after Googling “strong female protagonists in fantasy” or something of the like. As a girl raised on Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, I expect my heroines to be fierce and intelligent and am oft disappointed as the whining and pouting women who abound in fantasy today.
Luckily the Internet struck gold this time. Although the protagonist Cazaril is male, he is surrounded by complex and strong-willed female characters and his relationship with them is in no way creepy, demeaning or disrespectful.
Cazaril, recently escaped from slavery after surviving a siege, returns a beaten and broken man to the only home he knows – a noble household that he once served as a page. Welcomed there, he is surprised to be given the lofty position of secretary and tutor to Iselle, the Royesse (princess equivalent), and her companion Beatriz. He brings a soldier’s strength and a scholar’s intelligence to his appointment, and he desperately needs both traits when Iselle and her brother, the heir to the throne, are summoned to Cardegoss, the capital.
In Cardegoss waits dy Jironal, Cazaril’s enemy who sold him to the slave masters and has the ear of the King, being Regent in all but name. In addition to the political machinations, Cazaril also finds the deadly curse on the royal family that affects them, their court, and their country. He’s forced to deal with both courtly and supernatural intrigue as he attempts to protect Iselle.
The first major strength of Bujold’s series is the world-building. Chalion showed strong parallels to the medieval Spain of Queen Isabella, who Iselle is clearly modeled after as her story follows a similar path. There are numerous myths and tales of history told to fill out the political, cultural, and military backstory, providing the world with startling depth. Especially fleshed out is the religious system and customs. Instead of Catholicism, they have Quintarianism – a five-fold religious system that plays very strongly into the spiritual/magical elements of the plot. Be prepared for much Deus Ex Machina – the Gods are very much a tangible part of this world, particularly through the concept of living saints, and their hands are everywhere in everything.
This actually works very well with the second major strength of the book, which are the characters. Cazaril has to overcome a lot of internal obstacles and the reader is very much in his mind as he maneuvers through the world. In particular, he engages in theological debates about the Gods, their presence and their purpose. Though the free will vs. fate debate can be a little difficult to follow for readers, his inner struggle to do what is right even when it’s not easy is a highlight of the book and a defining aspect of his character. The Gods are imperfect characters in their own right who aren’t always perfect and whose favor is more of a curse than a blessing, which brings up intriguing discussions throughout the text.
Iselle of course is the main female protagonist and she is quite capable. She realistically matures throughout the book as the weight of her royal duties descends upon her. At later points, she even reproaches Cazaril for not providing her with enough information to make good judgments, which Cazaril ruefully apologizes for, but she is also smart enough to listen to advice when it’s given. Beatriz provides steady and loyal companionship to her, and becomes the focus of Cazaril’s affections. Still, he sees her as more than a pretty face, admiring her for her mind and determination.
The secondary characters, both male and female, are no less appealing. Dy Jironal, the main human villain, proves to have complex motivations and a cool, calculating mind, which Cazaril can understand and respect to an extent. Royina Sara and former Royina Ista are prove to have more strength and wits than initially apparent, and Cazaril’s friends Palli and his cousins prove to be both witty and faithful.
This is among the best adult fantasies I’ve read and I have high hopes for the sequel (which I initially was unsure about reading, since it focuses on Iselle’s mother Ista, not a favorite character of mine). I highly recommend for those readers willing to settle in for an intellectual fantasy rather than a swashbuckling one.