Expectations are funny things when you come down to it.
This is the first T Kingfisher book I’d read, the result of a hard sell from Fabienne over at Libri Draconis. Kingfisher had been kind of on my list somewhere but not high up. I had a rough idea of what to expect from friends. Comedy, romance, warm feelings. I picked Paladin’s Grace because the idea in the blurb was right up my alley and fell in love hard with the opening pages in a way I hadn’t done since reading Curse of Chalion, in no small part due to the similarities in tone. Book of the year, I proclaimed with utter confidence.
Then after the first few chapters, the tone changed.
I should have known that would happen really. Nobody talks about Curse of Chalion’s humour that much; I knew that a book that’s part Romance would have different priorities. But when reading, it was hard to see past what was right in front of my nose.
Paladin’s Grace is slick, fun and more-ish, thanks to Kingfisher’s prose and ability to write characters who see the world in interesting ways. It is definitely sweet and warm, a feel good book. It reminds me of a cross between latter Pratchett and Lackey; some of the former’s ability to always see the funny side, the latter’s interest in bringing good but hurt people together. I finished it in pretty much one sitting, staying up to 4am to do so – but was that because I loved it, or was it because I’d got invested in something that sometimes left me a little cold and wanted to finish it as quickly as possible to be able to shift the investment?
The main part of the book is taken up with Stephen and Grace’s romance, with the plot peeking up now and again between the cycle of clumsy interaction and then each yearning for the other on their own. I liked their yearning to begin with but quickly found it repetitive. I often found myself in a hurry to get back to the plot, which mainly took the form of a murder mystery with too few clues. I enjoyed it, but was exasperated by it. Something that was more straight exasperation was the peppering of modern feeling speech patterns and words that started to pop up 40% of the way in; not enough to establish a thoroughly modern mood, just enough to leave the medieval-ish feeling a little bust. An uncanny valley. Part of me wonders if I’d have felt that way if not mildly jarred already; I feel fairly sure that if they’d been in there from the beginning, I’d have felt happier.
This would be a different review if I were more of a Romance reader, delighted to have a book that’s primarily Romance in a Fantasy setting rather than enjoying it but wishing for more of a hybrid. It would also be a different review if I hadn’t accidentally set my expectations for this to be a different book. I guess part of that’s me but I will also swear up and down that the tonal shift is real. Looking at other reviews I think that might be mainly my thing to put it so explicitly.
What else? A book dedicated solely to the Paladins of the Saint of Steel (of which Stephen is one) would be potentially amazing. Their god was murdered, you see, creating a huge hole in their lives. Kingfisher has fantastic ideas. The friendship between Stephen and Istvhan is a joy to behold; I wish Grace’s friendship with Margueritte had been further fleshed out. Speaking of Margueritte, her plot presence seems more about setting things up for a further book than a resolution in this; something that is also kinda true of the severed heads. I’m not a huge cliffhanger fan. There’s also something of the hugely coincidental and unseen about the resolution of the main plot and severed heads subplot (insomuch as there’s resolution). Which is suboptimal to my desires.
This review is mainly me talking to myself, a little untangling my thoughts and a little venting. So let me make my pitch on this book directly. If you read this book, you’re here for the romance. You’re here to watch two people with scars on the inside slowly, fumblingly, work their way to a future they both deserve. It’s lovely and witty and well done. The plot with the dead god (pure background), severed heads, poisoning, and what not, is set up to push them together and executes that well but is a less certain attraction. You’re here for a mood that’s a little silly and rarely low or dark. You’re here for great friendships and great lines in a fantasy world, not for the exploration of the fantasy conceits. You’re here for mending through love, not an exploration of standing while wounded. The blurb and opening chapters of Paladin’s Grace seem to indicate you’ll be getting all of those things, but I only got half. Ironic that at times I raced through the bits it did best to the bits it didn’t, right?
I liked what it was. I liked it a lot. But at the same time, I mourn what it could have been if it had carried off both halves of what it seemed to promise, and delivered a little more on the expectations I built in the opening chapters. I don’t know what’s stronger. I don’t do scores on my blog but this one time it gets to the heart of my thoughts, but I could easily give this a 5 and I could easily give this a 3. The compromise of a 4 doesn’t seem right. I recommend it, I recommend it strongly, but make sure its strengths are what you want.
Expectations eh. They never work quite right.