The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold

The Curse of Chalion is a secondary-world fantasy based off Spanish history–the youth of Isabel I and the Reconquista. Names and some events are changed, but there are clear analogues. Of course, the titular curse is fictional, tying together a string of bad luck in real life as a magical disaster haunting the royal family.

I enjoyed the book greatly–whether you know the history it’s drawing on or not, it’s a wonderful theological adventure, in which fantasy gods play a prominent role. My post however will be less about the book’s many good qualities, and more about something that troubled me.

I don’t pretend to know a lot about the Reconquista, but I do know that during Isabel’s reign, Muslims and Jews were expelled from the country. In this fantasy world, the Christian equivalent are Quintarians, worshippers of the Five Gods, whereas the Muslim equivalent, the Quadrenes, see one of the gods as a demon and do not worship him. In general, the fictional religions have nothing to do with their real life counterparts–the only reason I call them equivalents is because of their position in the political situation. For example, the Quintarians are accepting of homosexuality, because it’s thought to be part of the fifth god’s domain. Obviously 15th century Christians were monotheists and also thought homosexuality a sin.

There is no equivalent population to the Sephardic Jews in this story, which greatly simplifies the ethics of the situation. There also don’t appear to be any equivalent to the moriscos–Muslims of Spanish rather than Moorish origin–which again makes it a lot more clear-cut. There are invaders, occupiers to be kicked out, and no collateral damage along the way. Moreover, the Quintarians are, in the context of the book, objectively right about their religious beliefs. The Quadrenes are simply wrong. 51k72bgtswml-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Now this is obviously not a direct take on the Reconquista and assorted fallout, but a world where magic is real. It still troubled me how thorny historical issues and atrocities are smoothed out in the fantasy world, when it’s so easy to draw equivalents to the real world (Isabel=Iselle, Enrique=Orico, Beatriz de Boabadilla=Betriz). Iselle herself is a lot less complicated and flawed than her real-life counterpart, because she simply has a less complex situation to deal with.

Another series that similarly troubled me was Aliette de Bodard’s Aztec books, in which the Aztec gods are real and demand human sacrifice. This takes place in a world exactly like our own otherwise, without the poetic license of a true secondary world. It seems to justify to some degree the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, making the historical crime of unwilling sacrifice much more palatable.

I don’t have an easy solution for any of this. In fact, I think fiction and particularly fantasy is a good place to explore issues and counterfactuals that make no sense or are even dangerous ideas in the real world. I loved The Curse of Chalion in part because I could recognize how Bujold had taken real events and cleverly made them fantastical, and I am reading the sequel, Paladin of Souls. But the ethics of using and twisting real history in fantasy bothered me nonetheless.

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3 thoughts on “The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold

  1. So while reading this, I am thinking: Casting the Quadrenes as “factually” wrong because in the magical setup of the world, this fifth god does exist seems to be a bad idea because it is essentially drawing the parallel that Muslims are “bad” – which could further Islamaphobia in the current environment. Then, I decided to check the publication date to see if it was recent. It was published in August 2001 – in a pre 9/11 world. So while the first gulf war had already happened and there was discrimination towards Muslims, it was obviously not as bad as the post 9/11 world. So maybe my existence in this context colors my interpretation.
    However, I still don’t like casting the one religion as wrong, especially when it has a clear historical parallel. A good example of promoting acceptance of different religions in a fantastical setting where the reader has knowledge of what is really “true” is in the Warriors series by Erin Hunter. As readers, we have been shown and bought into the existence of the spiritual ancestors that guide them (StarClan). While there are instances of characters being ostracized because of not believing in them, I remember a distinct instance of a different case. There was a character who was a medicine cat, a role with spiritual responsibilities, who did not believe in the existence of the ancestors. The perspective character has a hard time accepting it, but she and us as readers are lead to accept her still.
    This is so fascinating and I would love to discuss more how to write second world fantasy that clearly parallels specific histories. I guess I’ll have to read this book and others that you have mentioned and more.

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    • Also it looks there are quite a few sequels/ books in that world:
      The Curse of Chalion (2001)
      Paladin of Souls (2003)
      The Hallowed Hunt (2005)
      Penric’s Demon” (2015)
      Penric and the Shaman (2016)
      Penric’s Mission (2016)
      Mira’s Last Dance” (2017)
      I wonder how/if her writing of the world has changed.

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      • Not so much talking about the modern Islamophobia aspect as the way it could justify the historical expulsion of non-Christians from Spain. But that’s a good point. I think after Paladin of Souls, the Quadrenes don’t appear further? I’m not sure.

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