Religion in fiction

This entry is a follow up and really the result of my comfort read, written about briefly earlier today.The Curse of Chalion is one of my favorite books; if I could rescue only 10 books from my home as it burned down, TCoC would be one of them. TCoC was recommended to me by either Rosario or Maili, or maybe Shinjinee even, on the AAR Message Boards a couple of years ago, when I wrote that I was looking for books set in medieval Spain. TCoC is not set there, but its alternate reality seems to be based on it; the names look Castillian, the provinces and politics are reminiscent of Spain prior to the reconquest of southern Spain from the Moors and the union of Castilla and Aragon under Ferdinand and Isabella, and the geography even looks like an inverted Iberian peninsula if you check out the maps at I inhaled TCoC, then glommed all of LMB’s backlist. I adore Miles Vorkosigan, and think that Cordelia’s Honor is one of the better books I’ve ever read (including classics of literature), but Chalion and its hero, Lupe dy Cazaril, hooked me. Whenever I am in a reading slump or am feeling stressed, I pull it off the shelf for a reread, sometimes just a few passages and other times from start to finish. At the opening of the novel, Caz is a broken down soldier, released from slavery, walking home to Chalion and hoping for a menial job in the household in which he was a squire in his youth. The lady of the household remembers him and takes him in, making him the tutor/secretary to her granddaughter, because she thinks his experience training soldiers will be good for Iselle, who will one day be a great heiress. As part of Iselle’s household, Caz eventually returns to the capital city, where political intrigue abounds. Amid the court intrigue, Caz remains Iselle’s trusted adviser, and the only person upon whom she can rely to undertake a dangerous quest. I notice something new every time I read The Curse of Chalion. Not sure how that happens, since I’ve read it so often, but there you go. Guess that’s just a testament to LMB’s writing. In my most recent reread, I was struck again by the richness of the religion that LMB created for this alternate world, and by how it is such an important part of the characters’ lives and the plot. Bujold managed to make it clear that religion was important to the characters and the plot, but did so without an underlying message being given about religion, as in “You should believe this” or “Have faith in god and you will be saved”, and without being preachy.* Most romance novels (which TCOC is emphatically not) seem to take very little notice of religion, even when the books are set in the Middle Ages, when the catholic church was the source of all education, learning, charity, and health care, and was really the centerpiece of life.** That is, most romance novels take little notice of religion unless they fall into the inspirational subgenre. My own experience with inspirationals is that the religious dogma is overemphasized, to the point of overshadowing plot and characterization. The underlying message always seems to be that the hero or heroine was in a bad way because they had no religion or they had strayed from their church; returning to their church or joining a church saved them and solved all of their problems. When I thought about it, I realized that religion is a huge part of science fiction and fantasy, although it seems less “in your face” to me than the religion found in inspirationals. And it made me wonder, if LMB can so deftly make religion the heart of her Chalion books, why can’t inspirational romance writers do the same? Do they write inspirational romance because their interest is on the inspiration more than the romance? Is the story-telling secondary to the message? When I ran through my admittedly limited collection of science fiction and fantasy, I found that religion was a huge, HUGE part of most of the stories. Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys; Good Omens by N.G. with Terry Pratchett; Anne Bishop’s books; Sharon Shinn’s books; Jacqueline Carey’s books; etc. Is the religion in them acceptable to me because they are set in alternate worlds? Can’t be, because the two Gaiman books are set in modern America. Shinn’s books are so clearly based on christian theology/mythology that I’m surprised that they are shelved in sci-fi sometimes. Carey’s Godslayer books are based on some mythology, although I’m not sure which; it seems Celtic or Norse to me. Her Kushiel series creates another branch of a sort of christianity, with its own alternate history and religious texts, in an alternate medieval France. Bishop’s demons and witches live in a clearly alternate world, though, as do many other sci-fi and fantasy novels. Ultimately, I think the distinction is that the religion is part of the world building of science fiction and fantasy, while it is not so for inspirational romance novels. In the later, the religion and the romance seem to be the joint goals, so the proselytizing comes to the fore.What’s my point? I’m not sure, other than to say that I think it’s unfortunate that inspirational books are so heavy-handed with their religion, especially when you examine them in comparison to science fiction and fantasy.*Overt preachiness and plots used as authors’ soapboxes are two of my biggest pet peeves in writing. Subliminal messages and buried propaganda would bother me if I noticed them, but if they are done right, obviously I’ll never notice them, will I? ;)**The exception seems to be Roberta Gellis’s books, which are excellent, especially her Madelene la Batarde series, which is set during the reign of Henry I. *Happy dance* The fourth book of this series, Chains of Folly, is set to be published next spring or summer. Yay! Her old publisher dropped the series but a library publisher has picked at least this one book up.


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