The World of the Five Gods
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 1, 2020
Edits & Addendum on January 15, 2023
The Curse of Chalion / Paladin of Souls / The Hallowed Hunt
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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 anyone else would agree. 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 was 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. [EDIT: Now two others since.] 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 is a prequel set in a land south of Chalion. Lately she has written several novellas and one novel about Penric, also set in the Five Worlds milieu, which come after Hallowed Hunt but before Chalion/Paladin. I may get to them one of these days.
UPDATE, August 18, 2018: The World of the Five Gods won the Best Series Hugo at Worldcon 76.
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The Hallowed Hunt may technically be out of print, but new paperback copies are available (at this time) from Amazon, and it is on Kindle. While Bookshop shows it to be on backorder, they link to several independent stores that have either new or used copies available. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission. As an alternative, bookfinder.com or eBay are good ways to find books.
Posted January 15, 2023:
Well, one of these days has arrived. I finished The Hallowed Hunt this morning, which I liked much more than I expected. It has even sparked a need to re-read the first two books in hopes of a better appreciation, but that will have to wait for now. This is part of the Five Gods series, but set in an area south of Chalion. It is not on the map mentioned previously, but Darthaca is, so I'm assuming The Weald is just south of that. Just as Chalion had aligned with its neighbors to the east and west, The Weald may contain areas previously independent from it. It is set approximately 250 years prior to the other books, and there is mention of Weald history about 400 years earlier than that. Most bibliographic sites group these three novels under the Five Gods banner, but Wikipedia puts this one under a separate header, The Weald. As of now it is the only one in that category, but another might join it one of these days. Also from Wikipedia: "Bujold has stated that she intends to write a novel that focuses on each god. The Hallowed Hunt features the Son, The Curse of Chalion the Daughter, and Paladin of Souls the Bastard." That would leave the Father and Mother to other books yet to be written. The previous Weald history involved a war with Darthaca, which had brought the Five Gods religion to the country, whereas The Weald had had more paganistic, shamanistic views. That would be similar to how Christianity had tried to drive out the pagan practices of Europe and the British Isles.
It's written in third person, but almost everything is from the perspective of the main character, Ingrey kin Wolfcliff, who is a retainer of Lord Hetwar, Royal Sealmaster in Easthome, the capital city of The Weald. Easthome has several areas that bear other names, or at least are referred to as such, the two most prominent being Kingstown, where the royal palace of the Hallow King is, and Templetown, home to the shrines and schools devoted to the Five Gods. The story opens as Ingrey arrives at Boar's Head Castle to investigate the death of Prince Boleso. The death was an indirect result of Boleso dabbling in what was supposed to be forbidden magics. No matter that Darthaca had defeated The Weald and brought the Five Gods, and imposed sanctions against the old tradition of infusing a human soul with that of a sacrificed animal, it is obvious those practices had continued in secret, never abandoned. At least five characters I could name contain an animal spirit within them, including Ingrey. His father died of a bite from a rabid wolf during one such ceremony, and at the same time Ingrey received the spirt of a wolf cub. Since his situation was not his fault, had happened without his consent, temple divines were able to bind the wolf spirit, and Ingrey received a dispensation rather than a death sentence. As long as he never let the wolf spirit rise to control his actions. Other incidents made that a hard task to master. The actual cause of the prince's death was that he was bludgeoned by a woman during an attempted rape, and Ijada dy Castos indirectly received the leopard spirit intended for Boleso. The sorcerer performing the ceremony turned out to be the same one as in Ingrey's case, who had been in hiding ever since.
I'll try to gloss over other things so as not to spoil. Unbeknownst to Ingrey, someone else had placed a geas upon him, the purpose being for him to kill Ijada. When Ingrey recognized the impulse he thought it was his wolf rising to the surface, but he was able to control it. This is mainly a mystery, or multiple mysteries, with both political and supernatural implications. Who placed the geas on him, how was he able to override it, and after the geas was removed would it mean he would be unable to keep his wolf spirit in check? Ingrey is very good at keeping his intentions and his suspicions close to the vest (or his riding leathers as the case may be). He rarely gave straight answers to his superiors, and was able to keep secrets even from temple divines, or at least from most of them. I think he surmised who was responsible for the geas long before he reveals his suspicion to anyone else. Perhaps if he had done that sooner, or trusted another more, later events might have been avoided. But he waits too long, which allows the antagonist the opportunity to bind Ingrey to his will, and that comes right after the death of the Hallow King. The pacing of at least the first three-fourths of the book is slow, as Ingrey lets the clues fall into place. The last few chapters ramp up the intensity quite a bit, and it goes down to the wire as to whether Ingrey can survive, much less overcome the powers arrayed against him. Even if you can assume he will survive, how he will manage it is fraught with anxiety. It would be possible for Bujold to continue his story, but I doubt she will, since most of the major plot points are resolved. Now we wait for another novel devoted to the Father or Mother, since from what I've glimpsed of the Penric stories (which I will be starting soon), they also center on the Bastard. I recommend this book, which at this time I'll say I liked more than the other two, but a later re-read might change that opinion. However, I should mention that anyone who dislikes harm coming to animals might want to pass on this book.
The Hallowed Hunt placed fourth on the Locus ballot for fantasy novel, and was also a finalist for the Mythopoeic Award in the adult literature category. By the way, the cover image, which I at first thought was of Ingrey, is actually from a vision he had during Prince Boleso's funeral, and it depicts the Son, with the wolf and leopard representing Ingrey and Ijada.
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