These books introduce the small nation of Chalion, which I imagined along the lines of medieval Spain, I think because of the consonants she uses in names and the many political similarities. In this world, people believe in a nuclear family of gods – the Father, Mother, Daughter, and Son. Some people, including most of Chalion, also worship “the Bastard” as a fifth god of social deviance and magic, while Chalion’s enemies see the Bastard as a demonic force outside of the pantheon. The Curse of Chalion follows former general, and former slave Lupe dy Cazilar as he dabbles in death magic to redeem himself and Chalion’s royal family, who are literally cursed by dark magic, and figuratively cursed with corrupt officials. I actually liked Curse a bit more than this novel; the plot seemed more focused and the characters more interesting. It was also nominated for a Hugo, but lost in a much tougher field (that included American Gods, Passage, and Perdido Street Station).
Paladin follows a minor character from the first book, the former queen Ista. Ista had been inflicted with the curse, and had communicated with the gods. She also did some rather horrible things to try to remove the curse, and most people considered her mad in her grief. Now, she’s trying to regain some freedom by going on a pilgrimage, but on her way, she encounters an epidemic of demonic possession and raids from Chalion’s enemies, the Roknari. She comes to a castle that has its own share of curses and conflicts, and she has to deal with new powers from the gods.
Bujold plays some interesting games with magic and religion here, and it is a well-told story with compelling characters, which I’ve come to expect from her. We do get a few of the plot contrivances that bothered me in the Vorkosigan series, but they make a lot more sense when divine intervention is in play. I still want more out of fantasy novels than this, but there’s no question that this is a very solid entry in the canon. The phrase “guilty pleasure” seems unfair to Bujold, because she does offer more depth and better writing than most sf, and yet her novels do bring that phrase to mind, because they are so enjoyable, and so focused on simply telling a clear, entertaining story.
I should note that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was nominated for a Nebula this year. It’s one of my favorite novels, so I’m kind of bummed that the SFWA panel didn’t go out on a limb and give it the award. The Hugo nominee line-up is quite a bit weaker, and, though I've only read one other nominee, I imagine that Bujold would've been my choice.
(I’d give Curse of Chalion a B+)