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.


Five Books for a Fourteen-Hour Plane Flight

Somewhat foolishly, I booked a direct flight to India on a plane with no seatback televisions and, as far as I know, no chargers for my phone/Kindle app. So I’ve been making a list of paper books to read on the way.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
I was about two hundred pages into this when I fell off the wagon of the group readalong on tumblr. I’m excited to get back to the adventures of Edmond Dantes, and even more excited to find out more about everyone’s favorite badass quadriplegic revolutionary grandpa, Noirtier (yes, he’s a minor character, but so far the most fun).

2. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
To my shame, I’ve never read this book, despite majoring in Russian in college. Fortunately, I have a lovely English translation, which I’ve read a few chapters of. So far I’m more interested in the story of Pontius Pilate than in the satire of Stalinist-era society, but hopefully that thread will pick up later on. My fanfic loving friends may find this book interesting, with its “modern AU” of Goethe’s Faust and its audacious take on the New Testament.

3. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I know nothing about this book other than that it’s about an aristocrat in (once again) the Stalinist period, who’s confined to a hotel under house arrest. Also, both my parents read and recommended it. We’ll see how it turns out!

4. The Peach-Blossom Fan by Kong Shangren
I was perhaps lured into buying this under false pretenses, as the NYRB Classics blurb talks more about corrupt courtiers embezzling money for a theater performance than about the central love story, which is foregrounded in other summaries of the play. This is a Chinese classic about the fall of the Ming dynasty–a reformer and a loyal courtesan fall in love as their world falls apart around them. They eventually become Taoist monks instead of staying together.

5. The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag
I had to buy this because a) it was on sale for two bucks and b) it has an epilogue in the voice of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, Neopolitan journalist and revolutionary martyr. Mostly it seems to be about Lord Nelson (who put down the revolution Fonseca Pimentel was involved in), Emma Hamilton, and Hamilton’s husband, but it ends with a refreshing “They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.” I’ve read nothing by Sontag before, so this should be interesting.