The Curse of Chalion and its follow up novel, Paladin of Souls, are explorations of the human relationship with the divine wrapped in a pair of eminently readable fantasy novels.
Being god-touched has always had unpleasant connotations and those said to be so are to be pitied. Bujold explores what it would be like to be the host to a miracle. How difficult would it be to interface with a conciousness vastly different and more massive than a mortal mind? The religion that Bujold creates is very rich. She ties her creation firmly in existing religious and mythological frameworks. She uses familiarity with the concepts in play to inform the reader while still presenting a novel approach to seasonally based worship. (The Quintarian gods are: the Lady of Spring, the Mother of Summer, the Son of Autumn, the Father of Winter and the Bastard, the son of the Mother of Summer and a great demon sorcerer).
The Curse of Chalion follows Lupe dy Cazaril, Caz, as he returns from a stint as a prisoner of war in service on a slave galley. He is hoping to beg a place as a servant in a noble household in which he once served as a messenger. He has been broken down spiritually and physically, and only wants a place to end his days in relative comfort. Instead of being relegated to the role of a lower caste servant, Caz is recognized as a nobleman by his old mistress and appointed tutor to her granddaughter, Iselle. Said granddaughter happens to be the second in line to the throne of Chalion. As the titular curse plays out, Caz is thrust into court intrigue. In an attempt to save his young mistress from an unpleasant fate he prays for a miracle from the Bastard, one of the five deities worshiped in Chalion. What follows is a classic example of being careful what you wish for: besides having to deal with scheming mortal enemies, Caz must puzzle out exactly what role has been laid out for him by the divine powers.
Caz has trouble determining his course of action when he is trying to divine the gods’ will. His interactions with the gods are traumatic. He is confused because they won’t explicitly tell him what to do and bewildered by the interaction with their immensely different form of awareness. He questions why he was chosen to be the mortal agent of the gods, to try to interpret their will and then carry it out on the material plane. A fellow saint tells him that the gods most likely sent many such as he on the path to serving their will. Caz is the only one who made it far enough on his journey to see their end game. As he sees how long he has been on the gods’ path he relaxes. He stops trying to divine their will and trusts in his own judgment. He realizes that they have shaped him to be the instrument of their will and need only follow his inclinations to fulfill their plan.
The lasting take away from The Curse of Chalion is that the gods cannot touch the material world. For all their power they must rely on people to carry out their plans. People with their weaknesses and foibles, who can be sidetracked by fate, accident or the foul dealing of other people. Humans bring divine will into the world and without them divine power would be without expression.
The review of Paladin of Souls contains spoilers for The Curse of Chalion.
The religious underpinnings first presented in The Curse of Chalion are expounded upon in Paladin of Souls. It picks up about a year after the events in Curse. Ista, mother of Iselle, has regained her sanity after the lifting of the curse. Having been incapacitated by the curse, she was treated as a madwoman by everyone except Cazaril. Coming to her senses she wants to escape the castle that has effectively become her prison. Her retainers are her benevolent jailers. She appeals to Cazaril and he lends his support to her escape in the form of a pilgrimage.
Ista doesn’t truly want to go on a pilgrimage. She hates the gods. She, like Caz, was chosen to be host to a miracle but she failed. In her human frailty she failed to work the end of the curse. Ista blames the gods for the failure. As her pilgrimage progresses Ista is once again called by the gods, to what task she does not know. At first she rejects them but the Bastard presents her with a mystery. After years of isolation and indolence, she cannot resist the lure and she dives into the mystery, seeking the solution to the god’s riddles.
As Ista works through the mystery she works through the issues around her previous failure. She hates the gods as she hates herself realizing that as they failed her, so she failed them. She accepts her own guilt, her culpability and her anger at her own weakness. The mystery unfolds and Ista is called to play out her part in the gods’ plan. Her previous failures are tranformed to virtues. Her ability to forgive the gods and herself and the great traumas that her soul has endured have not diminished or harmed her. They have made her soul great and wide. She transitions from a resentful, failed saint to a great-souled one. She becomes a conduit and an agent of divine power.
The moral of Paladin of Souls is that our hurts do not have to hamstring us. Ista’s initial failure does not lead the gods to hate her. They see her potential. They entice her onto the path the healing. After she confronts the emotional fallout of her past actions Ista is able to realize the strength she has built by living through them.