Lois McMaster Bujold is a well-beloved science fiction and fantasy writer, and I read her award winning book “The Curse of Chalion” at the recommendation of a friend and my spouse. I tore through it, and now, I’m starting the second book that won a Hugo award called “Paladin of Souls.” The fantasy world is set in an analogue to Europe in medieval times. As I was listening to “Stuff you Missed in History Class” podcasts this week, I suddenly realized that there were similar characters and situations to life like of Juana “La Loca,” the daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. From listening to the podcasts, it seems that she may not have deserved the stigmatizing label that was applied to her: she was manipulated by others who hoped to control the crown. When I noticed this connection, I went to see if the world really was inspired by this period. While the story may be based on this period in history, the plot is fresh and diverges considerably from history.
Similar to my posts on George R. R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire,” I’m always interested in exploring inequality in fantasy worlds. I felt that Bujold did a good job of exploring gender inequality and stratification. The characters live in a patriarchal society, where men have more power and privileges than women. However, women sometimes come to power in a monarchy. The characterization of all of the main characters was excellent in this one. While Cazaril fulfills many gender roles, he is also very sensitive and introspective. I appreciate the fact that he does not seek out violence against others, as a principle. He is in charge of one of the heirs to the throne, a young woman in her teens, and she is shown to be impulsive, intelligent, and decisive. She is shown to shine compared with her younger brother, the direct heir. Of course, this book also dealt with stratification based on position in the hierarchy. While there are tensions between different cultures, there does not appear to be nationalism or racial inequality. (By racial inequality here, I mean different treatment based on perceived genetic differences, like skin color in the U.S.)
As a sociologist, I’m particularly interested in culture, particularly norms and values, as I’ve discussed before here. Bujold does an excellent job of showing you the culture of her world organically. She exposes the reader to the values of the society, including religious values through the discussion and actions of the characters. The norms of the world are different than ours but are developed in understandable ways. I loved how she explored religion in the book, and I enjoyed the nod to “The Canterbury Tales” at one point. There appears to be religious stratification based on the different gods, and I hope this is explored more in the second book. Finally, the prose is lovely and the plot is fast paced. I’m looking forward to reading her second book, “The Paladin of Souls” over the holiday.