It’s surprising, when you think about it, how few SFF novels tackle religious faith in any meaningful sense. There’s the Christian imagery of light and dark popularised by Tolkien and Lewis and taken up by their imitators, works that take a Western Christian understanding of the world for granted; there are novels like George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones which focus on the secular power of religious factions; there are novels like Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead in which the gods exist in such a mundane and tangible fashion that they do not function textually as gods at all. Religious faith is centred on intangibility, irrationality, the incapacity of words and reason to encompass some part of the universe; which means that any successful fictional treatment of faith (as opposed to the secular operations of religious factions) to keep the gods at some remove from the narrative, preserving a sense of the numinous and the mysterious.
Enter Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, a high fantasy novel set in an analogue of medieval Spain. The society of Chalion is organised around a religion based on five gods: the Daughter of Spring, the Mother of Summer, the Son of Autumn, the Father of Winter and the Bastard. This seasonal schema governs much of public life in Chalion: young noblemen join military units dedicated to the Daughter or the Son; unwanted gifts or items that have caused bad luck are given to the Bastard’s order to help support their orphanages and other work with the outcast of society; funerals involve a ceremony in which the dead person’s soul is claimed by an appropriate god (married women often go to the Mother, for instance, or unmarried men to the Son).
For the first 200 pages or so – almost half the novel – this reads like interesting background to a mostly secular story about royal intrigue. The protagonist, Cazaril, is a lesser nobleman recently escaped from slavery who’s granted a position as secretary-tutor to the lady Iselle, second in line to the throne of Chalion, and her friend and confidant Betriz. When Iselle and her brother Teidez (Chalion’s Heir) are summoned to the court of the king in Cardegoss, Cazaril must teach Iselle to protect herself from scheming courtiers and manoeuvre herself into a position of strength that’ll benefit both her and Chalion itself.
But when the king announces that Iselle’s to be married to Dondo dy Jironal, the slimy, oafish brother of the king’s too-powerful Chancellor, the novel twists into an entirely different shape. Seeing Iselle’s horror and dismay, Cazaril attempts a piece of highly illegal death magic, asking the Bastard to slay Dondo. It is an act that invariably kills its performer, yet Cazaril wakes alive to news of Dondo’s death. Turns out he’s been chosen by the gods to fulfil a great task: the lifting of a curse from the house of Chalion that turns all they do to evil and degeneracy.
Seen as a whole, the novel is a masterful meditation on free will and agency. A central tenet of Chalion’s theologians is that the gods can do nothing in the world except through the will of humans; that a person must explicitly lay down their will for the gods to achieve anything through them. But, like, even once you’ve done that the gods don’t tell you what you need to do; stuff just happens. Or it doesn’t. So one of the questions the novel asks is, what does free will mean in the context of imperfect information? How can you make good decisions when you can’t see the bigger picture? It’s a question that pops up again and again, as Cazaril tries to work out from theology, logic and garbled prophecy how to break the curse, and as Iselle strives to protect herself in an environment where her age and gender mean she’s kept in the dark even by those who are supposed to be her allies. A few chapters after Dondo’s death, the impulsive Teidez is driven by a combination of that very secret-keeping and by lies to destroy something that’s protecting the king from the worst effects of the curse – it’s a terrible event, and yet from his point of view, from the imperfect information he has, it’s the best decision he could have made.
How, then, does a person choose? Soon after Cazaril realises he’s been touched by the gods, he asks a local saint, Umegat, “what am I supposed to be doing?” Umegat replies: “your daily duties as they come to you.” Later on, after various trials and tribulations, Cazaril muses that “Prayer…was putting one foot in front of the other. Moving all the same.” I love this conception of faith as an active thing, the idea that the mundanities of life are elevated and dignified by faith. That there is value in work and in continuing on even when your information is imperfect. The best that anyone can do, the novel suggests, is make what decisions they can based on what information they have; is just do their duty as it comes to them.
Regular readers of this blog will know that high fantasy is not generally my thing; I tend to find that its deliberate archaism resists easy engagement and identification. But The Curse of Chalion is an incredibly robust text – well-structured, deeply argued, immensely satisfying on a second read. There are moments of intense catharsis and incredible grace. Bujold’s choice to restrict the gods’ power in the material world strikes that tricky-to-find balance between making them so accessible as to be mundane and so distant as to be irrelevant: their hands lie on everything in the novel, in dreams and omens and small miracles, but human will and agency are squarely in the foreground. I don’t think this will ever be part of my personal canon of Favourite Novels, just because of the aforesaid resistance (a me problem, not a book problem), but it’s certainly one I’ll be thinking about and referring back to for a long time.