I was raised with a strict ban on magic, during the 80s when people thought playing Dungeons and Dragons might cause you to kill yourself. Mike Warnke’s the Satan Seller was required reading in our house, and there lurked this terrible fear that Satanists and witches lurked around every corner, ready to maim or kill you. But by banning fantasy, my mother deprived us of a mirror that might have helped us think about good versus evil and our relationship to religion. Fantasy can open the mind, and theology, as it often arises in fantasy, can lead to deep discussions on the nature of faith.
It’s easy to ascribe a coincidence to divine intervention. You think of someone you haven’t seen for a while and run into them the next day, or the person you sit next to on a plane turns out to have been in your high school class. Coincidences often demonstrate that the world is truly a little place.
In fiction coincidences are common by necessity. A good plot relies on chance encounters, connections and events driven by nothing more than the need for them to happen. Connecting plot elements through coincidence can reduce the number of extra characters and help keep the reader interested.
In the Curse of Chalion, coincidence reflects the will of the gods and their limited ability to affect the actions of mankind. I’m going to try and discuss Lois McMaster Bujold’s technique without spoiling too much, but it may not be possible to avoid giving some key elements away. Bujold’s theology holds a logical depth that goes far behind the simplistic deus ex machina employed in so many stories. The gods struggle with their own goals, which might coincide with the goals of man, but in Chalion, the gods simply cannot work upon the world. They are barred by man’s free will. To effect a change upon the world, they must find an agent who’s willing to cast their own will aside. Most often this takes the form of characters who’ve been driven far beyond their limits. Their broken nature leaves them open to the gods’ use.
The Curse of Chalion ignores many of the typical fantasy devices: there are few action scenes or swordfights. Bujold could have chosen to tell the story of the handsome young prince new to his throne, or she could have focused on the Royess Iselle, a fascinating character who despite the limitations placed on her power by her gender, is a powerful young woman who finds ways of succeeding inside those limitations. Instead Bujold chooses for her protagonist Caz, a broken man in his thirties who’s middle-aged in his society. He arrives on the scene irrevocably changed by unfortunate circumstance, unable to lift pen or sword, poor and unrecognizable to even those few nobles who might remember him. From there Bujold weaves Caz into the politics of his day. Caz finds himself caring about more than mere survival again as his spirit heals from his terrible ordeals. Yet it’s not long before he’s once again pushed past his limits, and in that space, the broken man takes actions he never would have considered before.
The Curse of Chalion is a thoughtful fantasy, the sort of story that you ponder long after the book is closed. I put it down and immediately wanted to read more theology and philosophy.