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I have recently devoured Lois McMaster Bujold’s three fantasy novels set in the Chalion universe – a fantasy world that appears to draw much of its initial inspiration from medieval Spain.

I can’t recommend these highly enough to readers of fantasy who want a combination of strong and realistic characters, entertaining adventure, and sophisticated exploration of philosophical and religious issues all in a superbly crafted package.

The novels in question are:

Curse of Chalion
Paladin of Souls
The Hallowed Hunt

The first two are set in the feudal Kingdom of Chalion, and deal with what could have been fairly standard fantasy hero-quest adventures involving the breaking of ancient curses and saving the country from supernatural assault by the evil ruler of an opposing kingdom.

But you know that something different is going on when the heroes are, respectively, a middle-aged, worn-out and broken-spirited former courtier who has spent years as a galley slave following a humiliating defeat, and an equally middle-aged and broken-spirited dowager suspected of going mad following the death of her husband. These are fallible people with real aches and sorrows and memories of defeats and guilt and misgivings, who find somewhere inside themselves the will to serve the needs of their people.

This is also a land where the gods – there are five of them, the Mother, the Father, the Son, the Daughter and the Bastard, all seen in their own way as essential to the smooth functioning of the world – are real and attempt to intervene in the lives of humankind in order to bring about balance. But this is a universe where the gods really have given their children free will, and thus when Bujold’s heroes and saints are called to act, they have every right to refuse, to delay, to ignore the hints and promptings of their gods.

The third book, The Hallowed Hunt, is set in Darthaca, several hundred years prior to the two Chalion novels, but like the others, it features heroes (and villains) who behave like real people who’ve have been battered around a bit by life, and are swept up, unwitting, in events that at first seem far too vast for them to cope with.

These are protagonists that it’s easy to identify with, and the stakes are high and the risks seem real, because these are people who could fail, precisely because they are only human and we know from their pasts that they have failed before. And behind the action, there are some very interesting explorations of the nature of sacrifice, redemption, free will and divine providence – and as you may have gathered, I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. Put it all together, and it’s well worth the reading.

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