Culture, Religion, and Inequality in “The Curse of Chalion”

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.

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3 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology

3 responses to “Culture, Religion, and Inequality in “The Curse of Chalion”

  1. You have yet to disappoint me with a recommendation and this one sounds excellent. When I originally was in college I switched from Engineering to Sociology (the look on the dean of engineering’s face was priceless) because I found the intro class fascinating. Maybe due to my parents being psychologists I have always had an analytical nature so sociology, psychology and anthropology have always had an interest for me.

    Sometimes authors tend to simplify issues and I find that does a disservice to the readers. It’s akin to another “famous” discussion of ours – Frank Herbert’s Dune versus his son’s books of Dune. Reading Frank is heavy lifting and the characters are rich and developed and it is what I call “old school” science fiction in that it makes you think but you have to pay attention. However his son’s work is pretty straightforward “good versus evil” and the characters tend to be more cookie cutter and you can space out for 20 pages and not miss a lot.

    Another example of a series villain is that of the Lord Ruler in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy – he seems like the god he is made out to be until you learn more of what actually happens. It gives an understanding to the character that in another writer’s hands would have simply just been another “throwaway power hungry villain”. I think it is this kind of development that is necessary so if that is the case with this book then I definitely will check it out.

    • Thanks for your thoughts! I always love discussing books and movies with you. I definitely understand what you mean about good authors writing with more complexity in terms of characterization and plot. Have you read Brandon Sanderson’s “Way of Kings” series yet? How do think it compares in terms of dealing with complex issues?

      I agree with you Dune is one of the best series in terms of sociological complexity. I want to read more of it, as I’ve still only read the first one.

      • I tend to not like to read series that are not complete, hence why I have not read Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice”. I read the first 7 books of Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” and 2 1/2 years later book 8 came out and I could barely remember what happened. Now that it is finished next month I’ll definitely go back and read it.

        Is “Way of Kings” the one that he came to Quail Ridge Books to sign copies of? I’ll read it most likely when it is finished.

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