American author Lois McMaster Bujold is best known for her Science Fiction series about charismatic soldier and spy, Miles Vorkosigan, but this week I’m recommending one of her Fantasy novels. `The Curse of Chalion’, which came out in 2001, was the first of three novels Bujold set in Chalion, a country not unlike late medieval Spain. Surprisingly, the paperback edition seems to be out of print but second-hand copies are easy to find and `The Curse of Chalion’ is widely available as an ebook.

At the start of this story, Lord Cazaril is a broken man. While fighting for his country, Cazaril was captured by the heathen Roknari. His fellow-officers were ransomed but an enemy among his own people made sure that Cazaril was condemned to be a galley-slave. After years of suffering, Cazaril is rescued and limps home to Chalion, penniless and crippled. By what seems to be chance, he acquires a gold coin and a book containing the secrets of Death Magic. Using the coin to make himself presentable, Cazaril asks for help at the castle where he once served as a page. He is graciously welcomed by the Dowager Provincara, who is guardian to her two royal grandchildren  – Royse (Prince) Teidez and Royesse (Princess) Iselle. The Provincara shrewdly appoints Cazaril as tutor to Iselle and her devoted friend, Lady Betriz. He enjoys teaching these intelligent and spirited young women and gradually recovers his health. Then the Royse and Royesse are summoned to join their half-brother Roya (King) Orico at his fortress-palace, the Zangre.

In the Zangre, Cazaril is forced to be civil to the man he suspects of betraying him – Lord Dondo, brother of the powerful Chancellor dy Jironel.  Something is very wrong at the royal court.  Orico and his Royina have no children and the depressed and sickly monarch allows his Chancellor to rule Chalion. Orico only seems happy when he is helping to look after the  animals in the Royal Menagerie. Cazaril is intrigued by Umegat, a scholarly Roknari who is in charge of the menagerie,and startled to find himself a magnet for the crows who are sacred to the most enigmatic of Chalion’s five deities – the Bastard.  Cruel Dondo soon begins to corrupt Teidez and plot against Cazaril. When Dondo drives Iselle to the brink of suicide, Cazaril is desperate enough to resort to a very dark form of magic.

Cazaril survives but not unchanged. He is now able to see the supernatural powers all around him, including the dazzling light of living saints, the ghosts that haunt the Zangre, and an ancient and terrible curse which is hanging over the royal family and those who serve them. The deities of Chalion seem to have preserved Cazaril for some important task but time is running out. Cazaril is inhabited by an evil which will soon kill him and the conditions for breaking the curse of Chalion seem impossible for anyone to fulfil…

`The Curse of Chalion’ may be set in a conventional pseudo-medieval Fantasy world populated by kings and princesses, warriors and nobles, but several things make the setting stand out. Firstly, there is the Spanish/Moorish colouring, with the beautiful but sinister Zangre  having much in common with Spain’s magical Alhambra palace. Secondly, Bujold has resisted doing anything as obvious as introducing a direct equivalent to the notorious Spanish Inquisition. Instead she has invented an unusual and complex religion for Chalion with a `Divine Family’ consisting of Father, Mother, Son, Daughter and Bastard, each with their own Orders of priests, priestesses or warriors. People are chosen to embody the deity of the season, so in Spring Iselle becomes the temporary representative of the Daughter, and at funerals the corpse must be claimed by the sacred animals of one of the five deities.

When reading this novel, and Fantasy in general, I think it’s important to set aside your own beliefs, or lack of them. The  story won’t work unless you are willing to accept that the gods and goddesses are real to the characters. Whether his deities only have power to act in the physical world through human beings becomes the central question for Cazaril. This novel features some unconventional saints, such as homosexual priest Umegat who has fled persecution in Roknar, where they only believe in four deities. Bujold’s saints are ordinary people who become extraordinary when they allow themselves to be used as intruments for good, regardless of what it may cost them.`The Curse of Chalion’ makes you ponder the difference between magic and miracles.

The problem with many novels set in pre-technological societies in which magic works, is that spells are carelessly over-used. Magic is reduced to a convenient plot device to get the hero or heroine out of sticky situations.  In this book, the price of using magic is very high. Nobody zaps their enemies merely by waving a wand or reciting a few words in Latin. There are only two intensely imagined spells – the Death Magic and the curse on the royal family – and these turn out to be intimately linked. Death Magic can be used to kill an enemy but only through the sacrifice of the magician’s life. The royal curse seems to be a consequence of believing that the ends justify the means. Its malign influence on the royal court isn’t too different from the normal way that power corrupts people, which makes it hard for Cazaril to know if he is doing the right thing as he struggles to protect Iselle.

In any novel by Bujold you can depend on finding sympathetic characters and intelligent conversation.`The Curse of Chalion’ has plenty of both.  Inspite of a large cast and an increasingly complicated plot, the story never gets confusing because all the people and events are seen from Lord Cazaril’s point of view. Cazaril isn’t as original or multi-faceted as Miles Vorkosigan (if you haven’t yet read any of Bujold’s novels about Miles and his family,  go straight off and try `The Warrior’s Apprentice’) but he does make a very attractive hero. Bujold is particularly good at creating underdog characters and making her readers long for these characters to overcome all the obstacles in their path. At the start of the novel, Cazaril is so traumatized by the brutality he’s suffered that he just wants a safe place to hide in. He has survived his imprisonment with two things intact: his integrity and his self-deprecating sense of humour. His wide experience of the world makes him a wise advisor for a future queen. When he falls for brave Lady Betriz, Cazaril is convinced that he is too old and too damaged to win her love. He doesn’t think of himself as a hero or a saint but other people see him very differently. I passionately wanted a happy ending for Cazaril  and perhaps you will too. If you do enjoy `The Curse of Chalion’, you may also want to try `Paladin of Souls’ in which Iselle’s widowed mother is the leading character. Until next week.