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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bujold's The Curse of Chalion: The Story

Some weeks ago, having read all the fantastic literature that I really wanted to, and not having any books that I really wanted to re-read, I looked for guidance as to something new to read. Going over the winners of various yearly prizes in fantastic literature, I found, rather to my amazement, the following in the Wikipedia: "This is not only a novel about self-sacrifice and redemption, but also a piece of speculative theological fiction which closely examines the relationship between free will, fate and divine intervention."

The article was on The Curse of Chalion, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001) by Lois McMaster Bujold. I decided that I would read that novel, and I am glad that I did. I have already quoted the novel in two posts, one on the effects of war.

I plan to consider the question of whether the book is a Christian novel in a future post. First, I need to summarize the plot.

Cazaril is the main character. When we first meet him, he is clearly poor, and in bad physical shape. Two events begin to change his fortune, and, eventually, his health. First, a soldier mistakenly gives him a valuable coin, enabling him to go to Vallenda, the nearest city, and pay for new clothes and a haircut, so that he may present himself to the castle of the local royalty. Secondly, he finds a man who has died, and is able to honorably obtain his clothes (the body is burned). He also finds out that the man has died as a result of what is called death magic.

As the book progresses, we learn that Cazaril used to be a page in Vallenda, that he rose to a responsible position in the army of Chalion, the country, and that Dondo dy Jironal, a man evil in almost every possible way, saw to it, with his brother, Martou dy Jironal, that Cazaril was turned over to Chalion's enemies as a galley slave, which accounts for his poverty and his physical condition. At one point, he was beaten nearly to death, because he defended a young galley slave from the slavemasters. His back carries the scars of that beating.

We also learn that death magic isn't exactly magic. It is possible, in this sub-creation, to pray to one of the five gods of Chalion that someone else die, and, as part of the answer to that prayer, you will die, too. Cazaril learns more about this from a notebook left in the dead man's clothes -- the dead man died after praying that an evil man would die. Not just anyone can be killed by this sort of prayer. Only evil people may be.

For more on the religion of Bujold's fictional universe, see this article.

Cazaril presents himself at court, and is given the position of tutor and secretary to Iselle, a teenaged girl who is half-sister to the current Roya, or king, by Iselle's grandmother, who is the ruler of Vallenda. Betriz, Iselle's companion, also becomes his pupil.

After a time, Cazaril and his charges are called to the capital city, where Cazaril is responsible for them. Iselle's younger brother is also required to go, but he is not Cazaril's charge. The court is tainted by evil. The Roya is under a curse, and has ceded almost all authority to Martou dy Jironal, his chancellor. Cazaril conducts himself wisely. There is no decision he makes, in the entire book, to advance himself at the expense of others, or to choose evil over good. He does everything he can to promote Iselle's well-being. Iselle and Betriz learn from him, and they, too, are wise and good, which is difficult, under the circumstances of living in an evil court. Betriz queries Cazaril about what is wrong, and he tells her that a royal court needs a moral center.

The chancellor persuades the king to have Iselle marry his brother Dondo. In addition to being a drunkard, cruel, a womanizer, and evil in other ways, he is also over twice Iselle's age. She does not want to marry him. Finally, in desperation, Cazaril decides that the only thing that he can do to stop the wedding is to pray that Dondo will die, and that he, Cazaril, will die simultaneously. In other words, he prays for death magic. Dondo does die, but, Cazaril does not, an unprecedented event. However, Dondo's soul, and the demon that took his life, are encapsulated in a tumor in Cazaril's abdomen. Somehow, this event gives Cazaril spiritual discernment found only in a few, and he sees that not only is the Roya cursed, but Iselle and other members of her family are, too.

Iselle decides, correctly, that she must take action to forestall any other evil marriages arranged by the chancellor. Her younger brother dies, as a result of an evil action suggested to him by Dondo, before Dondo's death. Iselle takes the body to Vallenda for burial, and sends Cazaril to Ibran, a nearby kingdom, to try to arrange a marriage with the heir of that kingdom. Cazaril succeeds in persuading the young man's father that this would be a good marriage, in part because it turns out that the prospective groom was the young slave that Cazaril tried to protect. Cazaril didn't know of the young man's position -- he was incognito at the time.

Cazaril is told that the only way that the curse can be lifted is if someone is willing to die three times to lift it.

Martou dy Jironal, seeing Iselle escaping from his influence, is enraged, and tries to kill Cazaril. When his sword enters his body, Cazaril has a vision of one of the gods of Chalion. But the sword thrust releases Dondo's soul, and the demon, and the demon kills chancellor Martou dy Jironal.

Cazaril has died three times, and been brought back to life by a supernatural intervention each time -- once as a galley slave, once when he prayed that Dondo would die, and once when Martou stabbed him. The curse is lifted, Iselle and her new husband begin what appears to be a just and good reign (her brother's action has led to the Roya's death) and Betriz insists that she wants to marry Cazaril (who has wanted to do this). A storybook ending.

A question that occurs, to Cazaril, or to his friends, at various points in the story, is the question of his free will. Has he been chosen to lift the curse, and start Iselle's reign, or did he do this on his own initiative? Did he have any choice in the matter? The question is not completely resolved, but it is clear that serving the gods has its costs, as well as its rewards.

The book is well written, with interesting characters and situations. I found it especially interesting because of its religious nature. In other words, I found the quotation from the Wikipedia article on the book, given above, to be accurate.

Thanks for reading.

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