The World of the Five Gods
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 1, 2020
1: The Curse of Chalion / 2. Paladin of Souls
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I'm very conflicted in my opinion of these books. I was inclined to like them based on my reactions to the other Bujold books I've read. There are interesting characters and intriguing plots, but I struggled to care about any of it. At least she didn't rely too much on battles, as a lot of other epic fantasy does, but there is still a bit of that. I'm tempted to classify these as "pastoral" fantasy, but I'm not sure that would make sense to anyone else. At the heart of the problem are the Five Gods themselves, which from one perspective are no less logical than any other deities, but it leads to an opinion I have on religion in general. If you speak to your gods you are spiritual; if you think they speak to you, you're delusional. Yet in this world there are some who are god-touched, they can see and talk to the gods, and the gods can direct their actions whether they like it or not.
The Curse of Chalion was not Bujold's first fantasy novel. It was preceded by 1992's The Spirit Ring, which I don't have and know little about, but I'm pretty sure it was a stand-alone, not connected to this or any other series. Chalion was published in 2001, won the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature, and the SF Site's Reader's Poll, and was a finalist for Hugo, World Fantasy, Locus, and Phantastik Preis awards, the latter for its German translation. Chalion is a land-locked country surrounded by others that have been enemies at various times, or uneasy allies at others. Several of the countries on the peninsula worship the Five Gods, although those in the north, and the archipelago beyond that, are known as Quadrenes, only recognizing Four deities. Those four are the Father (of Winter), the Mother (Summer), the Daughter (Spring), and the Son (Autumn). As with the Catholic Sign of the Cross, adherents to the Four (and Five) Gods also have hand gestures to honor them. The Daughter is of the mind, so signing begins with touching the forehead. Touching the navel (womb) honors the Mother, the groin (sexual organs) for the Father, and the heart for the Son. Quintarians add another to the sign, which I believe comes second in the ritual, in which they touch their mouth, which is to honor the Fifth God, The Bastard. Quadrenes consider Quintarians infidels, the worship of the Bastard an abomination, the tongue being the source of all lies. Quintarians end their sign at the heart with the hand spread showing all five digits; Quadrenes keep the thumb hidden. A common Quadrene torture is amputation of the thumbs. I'm not sure which came first, the Four or the Five Gods, although it is apparent the author wishes us to identify with the Five as worshipped in Chalion.
According to wikipedia there are some historical referents, with Chalion a stand in for the Castile region of Spain, Ibra for Aragon, and Brajar representing Portugal. The Roknari from the north are equivalent to the Moorish invaders. Two prominent characters are said to represent the monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand. There is a map at the beginning of the second book which looks like the Iberian peninsula flipped north to south, with weather patterns switched as well. Northern regions are warmer, with colder climes to the south. As with a lot of fantasy, this does have a medieval atmosphere, with castles and keeps, kings and queens, although there is different nomenclature. Instead of king, the ruler is a Roya, his consort a Royina, with Royse and Royesse equivalent to prince and princess. The main character is none of these however, although Castillar dy Cazaril is eventually appointed Chancellor of Chalion. We first meet him toward the end of his long journey home, after he had escaped Roknari pirates. He had been pressed into slavery on a galley ship when he was not ransomed following a previous war, and he is sure he knows why and by whom he was abandoned. He manages to make it to Valenda, where he had served as a page many years before, and luckily is recognized by the Provincara (provincial governor). His status is a bit confusing since she addresses him as Lord dy Cazaril, which I would think meant he was a land owner, but if so why was he no more than a page in the court before? Regardless, it is evident he was well thought of then, had been an honorable soldier during several campaigns, but now wishes merely to serve in whatever capacity is needed. Cazaril reminded me a lot of Miles Vorkosigan, willing to serve but also capable of leading if that is what is necessary. He has a few disabilities, although not as severe as Miles, mainly he has just been beaten down by circumstances, weary to the bone. And he's missing a few joints on at least two fingers, the result of punishment, or an accident, when he was a slave, along with scars on his back from lashings.
I'll streamline the rest of the events. Cazaril is appointed tutor to the Provincara's grand-daughter, the Royesse Iselle, and her lady-in-waiting, Betriz. He later assumes the more complicated task of secretary when Iselle journeys to the capital city of Cardegoss, along with her younger brother, the Royse Teidez, next in line for the throne after their half-brother. Roya Orico seems to be ill, with most of his duties controlled by his chancellor. Lots of court intrigue, exposition concerning past events in the royal family's lives, including the Curse, along with explanations of the various religious orders devoted to the Five Gods. As with Orico, Teidez falls under the influence of another, who gives him false information that leads to wrong conclusions, and a tragic act. Both of these books are longer than all but one of the Vorkosigan books I've read, much longer than I think they needed to be. Even in Mirror Dance, Bujold juggled multiple plot threads, lots of action and exposition, yet the story flowed quickly and smoothly. These are slower, leisurly even, which is part of the reason I would dub them pastoral. And I hate to say it, but a bit dull too. I read Chalion because it came first, and the second book is part of my project to review all the Hugo & Nebula winners.
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2003's Paladin of Souls won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and was a finalist for the Italia in translation. The main character, the one who becomes the Paladin, is the Dowager Royina Ista, Iselle's mother. She had been Royina to Roya Ias until his death (from the curse), then Orico, his son from a previous marriage, ascended to the throne. Ista returned to Valenda to live with her mother, the Provincara. Everyone thought Ista mad, and she did little to refute that notion, mainly because she thought she was mad. She had married into the curse, but would likely have made other choices if she had known about that ahead of time. One of the worst things about the curse was the information was not revealed to family members who desperately needed to know. It wasn't until Ista told the story to Cazaril that a solution to the curse began to form in his mind. Now the curse is lifted, the Provincara has died, and Ista longs to do anything, go anywhere, as long as it is far from Valenda. Other family members and retainers still think she is not in her right mind, especially after she sneaks out of the compound and starts walking away, with nothing but the clothes on her back, no money, no idea where she is going. After she is found and brought back, she decides she must make concrete plans, so she convinces others she needs to go on a pilgrimage to the various shrines and chapels of the Five Gods. An acolyte of the Bastard's order convinces her he has been directed to help her, so he becomes a member of her party.
This is shorter than Chalion, and I read it quicker, but seemed much longer. Lots of meandering through the countryside, which makes sense since Ista didn't have a legitimate itinerary, she just wanted to get away from Valenda, with no plans to return. There are events that seem random, but later prove to be part of a pattern; the machinations of the gods, of wayward demons, and the mounting danger of another war in the north. As I said earlier, the books center on Chalion, they are presented as the "good guys," and I guess considering the brutality of the Roknari they are good in comparison. Yet Royina Iselle, her Roya-Consort Bergon of Ibra, her Chancellor Cazaril, and the military are planning a push to the north to capture the port city of Visping. Why? They now have the alliance of Ibra to the west, which has a thriving port city, and there is also Brajar to the east. Why is their agression any less heinous than previous Roknari invasions? Anyway, long story short, Chalion prevails, perhaps can even negotiate a truce with the north, and Ista finds her true calling. I won't detail what that is, since it was a bit confusing for me, even a bit preposterous. I wanted to like these much more than I did, but they failed to spark my interest as the Vorkosigan Saga has. These came out after I created this site, but at that time I was concentraing more on older books and authors, didn't have a lot of time for reading new ones, in fact have still only read one other book that was a finalist for the awards that year. I've enjoyed Bujold's science fiction immensely, but these two books less so. Paladin won more awards, but I liked Chalion a bit more. She has continued this series, but the third novel was a prequel set in a land south of Chalion. Lately she has written up to eight novellas about Penric, also set in the Five Worlds milieu, but I'm not sure if they are prequels or sequels. I'm also not sure if I'll ever bother with them. As in all things, YMMV.
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