The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
A re-read. but one I do not seem to have written up before. Or, if I did, I can’t find it now. Which is a pity, because it sets up my favourite of Bujold’s worlds.
Chalion is a fantasy-world nation standing in (approximately) for medieval Spain. The people of this world, or at least of this analog of western Europe, worship a pantheon of five gods (or four, depending on where you come from; this difference of opinion is a major cause of conflict in the area). The four major gods are the Mother, the Father, the Son and the Daughter, each attached to a particular season. The odd god out (in more than one sense of the term) is the Bastard, born when the Mother was raped by a demon. As far as some people are concerned, he’s a demon, like his father, but the Chalionese hold him to be a god, like his mother (though he has dominion over demons. And one, in particular, plays a role in the story).
And, speaking of awkward segues, let’s talk about that demon. Every now and then someone wants someone else dead really, really bad but doesn’t have the ability to do the killing themselves or the money to buy it done. In those cases, some of the people choose to turn to the Bastard, and what is commonly called “Death Magic”, though one Divine of the Bastard points out that it’s more properly a “Death Miracle”, though they tend to refer to them as “Miracles of Justice” because the Bastard won’t kill someone unless they deserve it (and certainly never with a knife or a large hammer). What does happen is that the God sends a demon to carry off the soul of the victim (killing their body in the process) and also that of the supplicant (the demon is always pictured with a yoke and two buckets; it must have both souls to depart the world).
One last note before we look at the story: some of the local language is used in the book to give it flavour; Roya instead of king, Royina instead of queen, and the like. We’ll just be using the English terms here, to avoid confusion.
At the start of the book, Ser Lupe dy Cazaril is making his way back from his last war. It has been kind of a long road, involving, among other things, several years as a galley slave for one of Chalion’s enemies, and it has not been easy; between the whipping and the bad food and the recent sickness, Caz (as he prefers to be known) could pass for someone much older than he actually is (though not as old as he sometimes feels) and, wearing the clothes he got from the charitable hospital he was in, someone very poor (though, indeed, Caz is poor. He’s an out-of-work soldier and a nobleman with no estate–he has only the money he can carry with him, and right now that’s next to none). A chance encounter with some knights of the Daughter leads to him slightly diverting from his path and finding a body of a local man who had obviously succeeded in using death magic. Helping the local farmer whose property the deed was done on to dispose of the body nets Caz the dead man’s clothes (they’re better than what he has now and he can’t afford to be choosy), which he eventually learns contains a small book written by the dead man, in code, which has his notes on the methods of death magic. Caz keeps planning to give it to the temple and keeps forgetting, especially since decoding old documents is the sort of thing he does for relaxation.
Anyway, as Caz has no more home, he makes his way to Valenda, an estate where in his youth he spent some years as a page to the local lord, the Provincar of Baocia (provincar and its distaff counterpart, Provincara, are terms I am not going to try to translate into English, in no small part due to the fact that I have no idea what they translate to. Some sort of landed noble, of high enough rank that one’s daughter could marry a king, but what exactly I can’t say). The Provincar is now dead, but his wife, the Dowager Provincara, now holds the estate, and Caz hopes that she will remember him fondly and give him some easy, charitable position so that he can relax.
Sadly, while the Provincara does remember him, and fondly, quiet is a little hard to come by. When the last King died, the rulership passed to his son by his first marriage and his surviving wife (second) and their two kids (half-siblings to the new King) came back to live with their mother. It doesn’t help things that the dowager Queen, Ista, is considered to be quite mad. The kids, Princess Iselle and Prince Teidez, are both teenagers, Teidez younger but first in line to inherit should Orico, the King, not produce an heir of his body. They are both kinda bored with living out in the country, and Iselle and her companion Betriz have to deal with the limitations of being women in a patriarchal society. They are, perhaps, running a bit wild. When Caz demonstrates practical wisdom in the course of dinner table talk, he gets offered a position: tutor and secretary to Iselle (Teidez already has one).
And though Iselle learns quickly, she needs Cazaril’s hard-headed sense, particularly when Orico gives up on getting an heir the hard way and adopts Teidez as his heir. The kids, and their retinues, including Betriz and Caz, head to the capital of Chalion, the massive natural fortress known as the Zangre, in the city of Cardegoss.
Something is seriously wrong at Orico’s court, though it takes Caz a while to figure out what. At the start, all he sees is that the Chancellor, one Martou dy Jironal, has too much influence on the King. And that he and his unlikable, possibly sociopathic, younger brother, Dondo (who has reason to hate Caz and may be responsible for him ending up galley slave) are determined to continue their influence on the next generation by corrupting Teidez and making him dependent on them. And then they get Orico to promise to marry Iselle to Dondo. Whether she wants to or not.
Caz has no problem with, you know, straight-up murdering Dondo, if he can get the job done, and Betriz is willing to give it a try if she can save Iselle that way, but Caz has gotten kinda sweet on her and doesn’t want to risk her life. But Dondo isn’t stupid enough to let Caz near him and it looks like there might not be any other way to stop him . . . until Caz remembers the book (remember the book? This is a story about — oh wait, no it isn’t) and the notes on how to commit death magic. Of course, that means he will die, but that’s a price he’s willing to pay.
So he tries it. And wakes up the next morning, feeling awful, but disappointed to realise that if he’s alive, Dondo must be alive too. But, it seems that Dondo died during the night, a victim of death magic . . . but if not Caz, who? And if Caz, why isn’t he dead?
It turns out that Caz has received not just the “miracle of justice” but also a second miracle, which is keeping him alive, at least temporarely. It has also placed the Death Demon and Dondo inside him (spiritually, presumably, rather than physically . . . but then, why does his stomach hurt so much now?) and if they should break free he will die instantly. The whole thing has also given him a form of second sight, allowing him to see bright auras around certain people, who are saints of the various gods (and who see a similar, but dazzlingly bright, aura around him, marking him as a saint as well. But to which god? And why?). He can also see a dark, disturbing aura around the members of the royal family, which is an old curse on them. It’s why Orico and his wife have had no children. It’s why Ista is mad (or is she?). It’s why the dy Jironals have so much power and are so corrupted. It’s what Caz must end before it destroys Iselle.
I’ve written a small novel myself here just getting to the curse in order to explain the title. So I’m going to try to wrap things up as quickly as possible on the rest. Chalion and its religion are well-imagined, and there is a strong sense of things going on that we don’t get to see . . . stuff in the background like a living world. The characters, always Bujold’s strong point, remain so here: Caz is great, at turns sarcastic and caring, thoughtful and violent; a warrior and a courtier turned saint and, even though the term means something slightly different in Chalion than it does here, still deserving of it. Iselle, though no warrior, is still a fierce and independent spirit and Betriz is easily a match for Caz (though there’s an age gap again . . . not as big as the one between Fawn and Dag in The Sharing Knife, but still . . . does Bujold have a thing for older men?). And Ista, well, read Caz’s farewell to her at the end of the book and remember that she’s the hero of the second book.
And, for all my atheism, there’s a vision of the divine that really touched me. If there were real gods and they were like that, I could worship them.