Paladin of Souls – Lois McMaster Bujold

61904-_uy475_ss475_Paladin of Souls won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards when it came out, and is generally reckoned one of the prolific Bujold’s masterpieces, perhaps the best book she’s ever written. That’s a lot of hype to live up to. And it lived up to it.

All the problems I mentioned in my review of The Curse of Chalion stand. However, the heights of emotion which this book reached, particularly in the final third, more than make up for the worldbuilding problem I discussed in my earlier post.

In summary: Ista (analogous to the mentally ill Isabella of Portugal, mother of Isabella the Catholic) is freed from the titular curse of the last book. With her husband and parents dead and her sole surviving child grown-up and married, she’s not quite sure what to do with herself. To escape the narrow life planned for her by well-meaning relatives and friends, she goes on a pilgrimage, but when her party is attacked by enemy soldiers, she ends up at the castle of her rescuer Arhys dy Lutez–the son of Arvol, the man she killed long ago trying unsuccessfully to break the curse.

There are bigger problems than her old guilt and hatred towards Arvol, though. Arhys, his wife, and his brother are caught in a demonic mess that threatens to kill them all, and Ista has been brought there by a god, the Bastard, to sort out the problem. But with her last brush with divinity and magic having ended in Arvol’s murder, she’s reluctant to trust any deity.

Things get worse when more enemy soldiers show up to besiege the castle. There’s no way they’re all getting out of this tangle alive, but death at the right time might be worth everything…

My favorite part of this book was the character of Arhys, who is a genuinely good guy (despite his lax fidelity to his wife Cattilara). The other characters call him “great-souled” and despite his flaws, it’s obviously true. He has a strong sibling relationship with his illegitimate brother, and a romantic image of his long-dead father, which Ista shatters. But when the truth about his father, whose courage broke during the effort to lift the curse, is out, he says he does “not desire any softer wreath”.

The way Ista sees him shifts over time, from rescuer/potential romantic prospect to son of a man she hates to hapless part of a mess she’s meant to fix to hero. Their (decidedly non-romantic) relationship, with the grace of the gods, manages to heal Ista of all the rage, guilt, and bitterness that has haunted her since she killed Arvol in her failed ritual.

All the other characters are also sharply drawn–the clever, good-hearted Illvin, the determined though childish Cattilara, the complex figure of Arvol, and Ista’s own personality–cynical, impatient, tough, but reawakening to life.

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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.