Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Curse of Chalion / Paladin of Souls (2004)

Subgenre: Fantasy

I have a confession to make: before I started this project, I had never heard of Lois McMaster Bujold. This made it a little surprising when I learned that she had won four Best Novel Hugos - tied with Heinlein for most ever. Having now read the Hugo-winning Paladin of Souls and the first-runner-up The Curse of Chalion, I'm starting to understand both why she won and why I hadn't heard of her. Fair warning - I haven't yet read any of her science fiction novels, so we'll see how foolish this sounds three books later.

Chalion and Paladin are both set in your standard warring-countries with battles, swords, bows, etcetera. It would be nice to occasionally read a fantasy novel that didn't feel like it was set in the War of the Roses with the names changed round. (After writing that sentence, I read the wiki which claims Chalion is sort of a retelling of Isabella and Ferdinand's unification of Spain, so I got the time period right but the country wrong). Chalion follows the recently-returned-from-slavery Cazaril, who mostly wants to be left alone, but gets dragged into the affairs of state by being just too damned talented. Between the plotline, the sense of humor, and the supertalented main character with a C-name, I kept on assuming that Chalion was actually a Zelazny novel - fairly high praise. Paladin follows a minor character from Chalion on a very different quest, and though it could be read independently, it would spoil some of the interesting surprises in Chalion.

Both Chalion and Paladin are well-written, compelling fantasy novels, well-executed by any standard. I went out and bought Paladin immediately after I had finished Chalion - they are very good books. But I can't imagine them becoming my favorite books - they have too large a dollop of caution for my taste, and they didn't ever tell me something new. In the best of these Hugo-winners, the ones I recommend to people, and the ones I've had recommended to me, there are moments of revelation - the realization of the piggies' actions in Speaker for the Dead, the end of Stranger in a Strange Land, and pretty much all of books like Spin and A Fire Upon the Deep - and despite some definitely enjoyable plot twists, neither Bujold book reaches the heights of those novels. Still, I can't imagine her writing, say, I Can Fear No Evil, either, so it's not all bad.


  • I do like the sense of humor of these books -
    "His lips tasted of soot, and salt sweat, and the longest day of her life. Well, and horsemeat, but at least it was fresh horsemeat."
  • Both novels wrap up far, far too neatly for my taste.
  • Ista's story in Paladin is one of the few Hugo-winners I would characterize as being an explicitly feminist narrative, especially with its early focus on oppression by social structure. The only other examples I can come up offhand are Ursula K. Le Guin's two winners.

Hugo-worthy? If all of Bujold's books are this strong, they could easily be the best books in a given year - I can see how she wins Hugos. Paladin and Chalion are both B+ books in my mind, but Chalion was up against American Gods, and rightly took second place.

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