Lois McMaster Bujold: Paladin of Souls

Paladin of Souls is the sequel to The Curse of Chalion, and also the winner of the 2004 Hugo Award for next novel.

The story opens about 3 years after the close of Chalion, and the protagonist is Ista, the mother of the present royina (queen), who lived for 20 years under a cloud of depression and despair due to the curse on the royal house. It’s taken her this long to struggle out from under that cloud, and with the death of her mother Ista is now casting about for some meaning to her life, even as she’s kept a prisoner through kindness of her family and friends at her mother’s castle. Desperate for a change, Ista organizes a pilgrimage for herself and a few helpers, including a pair of soldiers sent by her daughter, Ferda and Foix, and her new lady-in-waiting, Liss, whose main occupation is a horse courier.

On her pilgrimage, Ista learns that more and more demons seem to be loose in the world, a point driven home when one of her party is himself occupied by a demon. But the group soon has larger problems, when they are attacked by a raiding party from the neighboring – and unfriendly – nation of Jokona. After the group is scattered, Ista is eventually rescued by Lord Arhys and taken to his castle Porifors, where she also mets Arhys’ young wife Cattilara. Though charmed by their hospitality – and rather taken with Arhys – Ista soon realizes that there’s something not right in Porifors. In fact, a visit from a party from Jokona some months earlier had adversely affected Arhys and left his best friend, Illvin, close to death. Moreover, all that has transpired can be traced back to Jokona, and Ista finds herself unwillingly at the center of the happenings, and even more unwillingly charged by one of the gods – gods whom she believed abandoned her to her decades-long misery – to set things right.

Being set in the same world as Chalion, I found Paladin suffers many of the same problems, among them its stock and basically unimaginative backdrop. The most interesting aspect of the backdrop are the five gods – the Father, the Son, the Mother, the Daughter, and the Bastard – who each hold sway over different aspects of the world, and with a structure that makes it more than a common polytheistic religion. But the structure doesn’t really play a major role in the story, it’s just a backdrop which shapes the character of the one god – the Bastard – who does play a significant role.

The big problem is that Paladin shares the biggest flaw of Chalion, which is that the story moves so s-l-o-w-l-y. It takes nearly a hundred pages for anything significant to happen, during which we’re mainly treated to the endless musings of Ista over her situation, until they encounter the Jokonan raiders. And then it’s over a hundred more pages before the revelation of what’s happening in Porifors, which is when the real story begins; everything before that it really just set-up, and it drags. A lot.

The balance of the story is generally stronger than Chalion, though: While Ista is not as engaging a main character as Cazaril was (Ista is another stock “strong woman in a society which marginalizes women” character), the challenge she faces is more interesting, and it has a much more dramatic and satisfying resolution. I also enjoyed the denouement of this book better than the first book, as it provides some nice insight into where the main characters will be going after the story ends.

But overall this is still a very flawed book. I’d sum it up with the old chestnut, “If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.” As for me, I think Bujold’s career has pretty much bottomed out with this pair of fantasy novels, and I certainly have no interest in reading any of her later fantasies. I’ll probably read further books in the Vorkosigan series (even though I’m not wild about the path that’s taken, either), but the action and adventure and humor that characterized her earlier novels has dwindled and finally vanished, and instead she’s writing dreary dramas with flat characters, and that’s just not worth my time to read.

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