Thursday, April 9, 2015

Sulzer SF/F: Curse of Chalion

At the last meeting of the Sulzer Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club, we discussed Lois McMaster Bujold's "The Curse of Chalion" (2001). As usual, I have to open with my general anti-fantasy bias, but I found this really enjoyable. There are supernatural forces in "Chalion", and it is set in a pseudo-medieval pseudo-Europe, but it overcame these sizable handicaps (imho) and sucked me in. Good characterization, a little non-standard in plot, and with some interesting details and invention, particularly regarding the religious angle. Possible spoilers below!

"The Curse of Chalion" takes place in a late-medieval-feeling world, largely in the landlocked nation of Chalion. It took me a little while to piece together how the world worked in terms of pseudo-historical/culture, with the names and geography. summoning up something sort of French/Italian/Spanish. Turns out it is indeed based on the Iberian peninsula, only flipped upside down North/South, with the story very loosely based on the marriage and machinations of Isabella of Castille & Ferdinand II of Aragon (who united most of what's now modern Spain, financed Columbus, and, to be fair, also were involved in lots of Inquisition-al, forced-conversion, expulsion and worse of Spain's Jewish and Muslim population).

But! Our viewpoint character is one Cazaril, a soldier (apparently of some rank, though I don't know this was ever exactly specified) recently released and recovered from a long time as a POW aboard a galley. Returning to the last place he held service, Caz finds himself working as the tutor to a member of the royalty, and eventually involved in complicated plots to protect her and carry out her policies at the highest levels.

Oh, and there's magic. But it's not...terrible magic. The titular curse takes a strangely long time to show up--roughly half the book--but that didn't really bother me. It's not so much that there is "magic" in the sense of supernatural forces that anyone can deploy; rather, the gods are at work in the world in certain ways, most particularly through their saints and devotees. The curse is a very weird piece of phenomena--kind of a spectacularly botched or ruined blessing, actually--that has attached to Chalion's royal house, and spreads rather like a genetic defect (or STD). The curse plays on the weaknesses and strengths of those it affects, ruining and corrupting everyone it touches eventually.

We liked the gods here--there are 5 in total--the depiction of the religion felt a bit like Christianity, but with some strong Greek notes. In addition to the Father, Mother, Daughter & Son, there's The Bastard, which we liked as a mechanism--the Bastard is worshipped (at least in Chalion) just as the other four are, but is apparently in charge of all kinds of odds and ends and frowned-upon bits.

We liked the way the chosen of the gods worked; we talked a bit about hagiography, and specifically St. Francis due to the all the connections between animals and the gods & their followers. I really liked the way that these people with remarkable connections to the supernatural are kind of spread invisibly through the population, not necessarily in positions of power. It reminded me of a bit I've always liked in Le Guin's "The Lathe of Heaven" (1971):
    Are there really people without resentment, without hate? She wondered. People who never go cross-grained to the universe? Who recognize evil, and resist evil, and yet are utterly unaffected by it?
    Of course there are. Countless, the living and the dead. Those who have returned in pure compassion to the wheel, those who follow the way that cannot be followed without knowing they follow it, the sharecropper's wife in Alabama and the lama in Tibet and the entomologist in Peru and the millworker in Odessa and the greengrocer in London and the goatherd in Nigeria and the old, old man sharpening a stick by a dry streambed somewhere in Australia, and all the others. There is not one of us who has not known them. There are enough of them, enough to keep us going. Perhaps. (100)
Caz says, towards the very end of the novel, "I realize now why I never saw saints, before.The world does not crash upon their wills like waves upon a rock, or part around them like the wake of a ship. Instead they are supple, and swim through the world as silently as fishes" (441).

I was really intrigued by the mechanism of the gods' acting in the world--relying entirely on a kind of open-ness or submission on the part of the believer. It seemed to me a really potent kind of discussion of prayer and relation to deity.  At group we didn't get into the spiritual/religious angle of this too much, but it stuck with me--might include "Chalion" on my imaginary syllabus of "SF/F to Think About Religion With". Have to post that sometime!

Deeply sceptical
of this funeral.
We thought the funeral rites were fun--devotees of each gods bringing a sacred animal, and which one goes to the body lets us know which god is taking care of the departed soul--but it also put me in mind of that W.C. Fields line to "never act with children or animals"--relying on animals to do the right thing at a critical public event seems like a TERRIBLE idea, even with gods calling the shots.

Did a wide range of Bujold comparisons and contrasts. L.E. Modesitt, Jr., whose "Imager" (2009) was a previous Sulzer read, was called "more YA" after comparison to Bujold. Maddelyn, our organizer, set the societal/marriageable politics here in an Austen-ian light, while others of us were more reminded of historical intrigue novels like those of Alexandre Dumas ("The Three Musketeers" [1844] for instance). Delia caught the Isabella/Ferdinand link which, reading up about after the fact, is right-on.

Those of us who had read other of Bujold's work (particularly the sprawling Vorkosigan series) were very impressed by her writing in Chalion--it feels more solid, realistic, and serious, despite Chalion being fantasy and Vorkosigan being SF.

We liked the physicality of the writing, particularly with regards to magic and health. While Caz is pretty kick-ass as a character, he's not a superman, and the constant description of the lingering damage of his war injuries (deep scarring affecting his mobility) and, later, the magic-induced tumor in his belly (not some invisible thing, but something palpable and distending his stomach) lent him a lot of believable, grounded humanity. We also smiled upon the techniques and descriptions of the "vision" or "second sight" by which Caz saw other saints and supernatural effects.

We all had issues with the names! The names! Long invented titles and place-names-used-in-place-OF-names, all with a pronunciation we weren't super solid on. I was particularly thrown by the "dy" preposition in all the names, because in my head I wasn't sure if that was a "dee" or a "die" sound. Thrown every time! Also I have a few dialogical quibbles with Bujold, mostly her penchant for throwing "ums" and ellipses into conversation. At group we talked about how vocalized pauses, stutters etc. are all normal parts of speech. BUT, my issue is that, as a writer, one is ironing MOST/ALL of these away, so throwing in just a few is distracting when it doesn't serve a clear purpose. Just a personal peeve, though.

We laughed a bit at the gods "blowing their SFX budget" when they took out the main villain. I am for some reason really amused that Caz's tumor turned out to be filled with celestial flower-water.

Isabella I: probably
using that book to
"take some names".
We also talked for a bit about the situation (that seems to come up a lot) of a woman writer using a male protagonist and a strongly patriarchal world--an invented world, so it doesn't have to be. That said, we liked the agency of the female characters here, particularly Iselle--appropriate considering her real-world inspiration. Indeed, compared to Iselle, Betriz, and the Dowager Provincara, most all of the male characters (excepting Caz) seem either bumbling & incompetent or destructively intent on their goals-bit of masculine criticism there? Though granted the curse is involved for quite a few.

Quite aside from the gender issue, I liked Caz's critique of war--both the way it destroys land and people over largely imaginary issues, and the way that the profits of it are largely reaped by a small number of men in charge.  "It's a wondrous transmutation, where the blood of one man is turned into the money of another. Lead into gold is nothing to it." (117).

I'd probably read more fantasy if it all encouraged me to revisit Eisenhower's farewell address. (Text/video).

We all liked his critique of duelists: "a skilled soldier kills your enemies, but a skilled duelist kills you allies. I leave you to guess which a wise commander prefers to have in his camp" (29), as well as his take-down of an attempted assassin in the form of a duel later on: "I don't duel, boy. I kill as a soldier kills, which is as a butcher kills, as quickly, efficiently, and with as least risk to myself as I can arrange. If I decide you die, you will die when I choose, where I choose, by what means I choose, and you will never see the blow coming" (251). Good stuff.

After mostly-wrapping-up the actual novel discussion, we went off on a long delightful tangent about genre: starting with a few of our prejudices and issues with fantasy (my hand shoots up) and continuing to talk about how genre works on film vs. book-form. We looked at the AFI's "Top 10" lists for Fantasy & Science Fiction. They had to talk me down from the ledge when "Metropolis" (1927) wasn't on there topping the list (not American and thus not evaluated, *whew*). We were all a little flabbergasted by the broad range of film on the Fantasy list ("Miracle on 34th Street" [1947]? Really?) and we talked about the difficulty of adapting SF/F to screen while being true to the feel of the literature. Michael Crichton being an interesting exception--"The Andromeda Strain" (1969 book/1971 film) brought up as an excellent example of how to nail a film adaptation.

An excellent group! The next selections are:
  • May 19th: "How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe" by Charles Yu (2010).
  • July: "The City and The City" by China Mieville (2009).

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