The first thing you should know is that I am an ideal Bujold reader, and Bujold an ideal Peat author.
Our ideas on what makes great prose, great stories, great characters, and so on, seem to align perfectly. What flaws she might possess as an author – I’m tentatively prepared to admit there’s probably some – are flaws I do not consider important, or consider to be features instead.
As such, this will be a rather positive review, and maybe not of much use to you if you want to hear about the book’s flaws in terms of judging whether it’s for you. If you want to hear its strengths sold however, or simply read me losing my cool over a book, you’re in the right place.
Paladin of Souls is a sequel to the equally superlative Curse of Chalion and it does something that’s rapidly beginning to be one of my favourite tricks, which is to follow minor but intriguing characters from the first book and tell us their story. Cazaril and his charges do not appear in this book but Ista, the much-suffering and only partly sane mother of Iselle does, and Paladin of Souls is her tale.
It starts a few years after CoC, with Iselle now a mother far away from Ista and Ista’s own mother, the formidable Dowager Provincara, freshly dead. Keen to get away from the home that has effectively been her prison, and the well meaning but tyrannical people there who see her as too fragile to cope with life, Ista proposes to go on pilgrimage. The minor nobles around her assume it must be to pray that Iselle has a son next time; Ista does not demur publicly but inwardly seethes. Once on the road however, she finds that The Five always have need for those who open themselves up to them, and that her life is to be far from simple now.
I have to say that the focus on faith is one of my favourite parts about the series. I am not particularly religious (and even if I was I’m not sure which religion I’d believe) but the subject fascinates me, as does its role in the medieval societies fantasy often takes rough sketches from. Another thing that particularly gets me is the examination of power and morality in worlds full of magic and religion. Bujold gravitates towards both, and interconnects them deeply, and in doing so creates the most important part of Ista’s world. We do not get long descriptions of food (shame) or clothing, or of social customs and everyday courtesies, because they are not particularly important to Paladin of Souls and Ista. What is important is how the gods and other forces of the world give power, and what they demand for it, and what is right to do with it.
Ista is a wonderful, wonderful character with which to explore these thoughts. I have a definite yen for characters who’ve already lived a life and react to their adventures with the weight of it; well, that’s Ista dy Chalion alright. To give her full history is, alas, to give spoilers for CoC which I won’t. But she is full of weary suspicion, and guilt, and self-doubt, and Bujold doesn’t forget any of those things when Ista encounters troubles on her way. Sometimes those things fuel her exasperation (she has a splendid inner monologue) with the world and resultant courage; sometimes it weighs her too much to move. Mostly, she is courageous, both morally and physically, despite having no great power with steel or sorcery to protect herself,
She is surrounded by an entertaining and varied cast that enliven the story and stops Ista from getting stuck in her occasional glooms. Liss, a messenger who Ista recruits to be her lady-in-waiting on the road, is a charmingly free-spirited and optimistic soul who brings the best out in her older friend. Dy Cabon’s eagerness to know the blessings of his god, the Bastard, contrasts well with Ista’s desire to have nothing to do with it. Then there’s the seemingly cursed brothers of Castle Porifors, Illvin and Arhys, who could well be heroes in their own gothic romance. That is one of Bujold’s strengths, to have books where so many characters could be the hero, where they drive stories and have their own arcs and the rest of it.
But then Bujold is all strength as an author. Her writing is elegant, smooth flowing with many moments of insight and wry voice. Her action scenes are tense, her handling of the plot sure. She hits the right level of emotional drama for me. The only thing I would wish for what she set out to do here is deeper worldbuilding, but I think it’s quite possible that would only get in the way of the story and characters.
I said Curse of Chalion was perfect for me. Paladin of Souls is no less so. Hopefully I’ve persuaded you to test this out for yourself.