Mount Readmore Book Review, 2018 106/200
Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
Finished on 6/25/2018
In a land threatened by treacherous war and beset by demons, royal dowager Ista, released from the curse of madness and manipulated by an untrustworthy god, is plunged into a desperate struggle to preserve the endangered souls of a realm.
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, World of the Five Gods, Religious Fantasy, Romance, Award Winner, Hugo Award, nebula award, Fantasy Classic
The Gods Demand Not Perfect Souls, But Glorious Ones
Reading this is so bittersweet for me. I’ve read this book so many times I can spot all the twists and turns of the plot coming from a mile out. I haven’t read this book in 2+ years now, (not since I started writing this blog,) and my memory of it has only faded a little. And now that I have 2+ years of critiquing experience, I can notice a whole lot of flaws I never used to notice.
Despite the fact that I now see flaws, I still think this is one of the best Fantasy genre books of all time. Starring Ista dy Chalion, the dowager queen of Chalion, this is a coming-of-age story of a 40 year old woman. Ista is probably the best fantasy protagonist of all time (in my opinion). She enters the story like a lightning bolt: bitter and angry at the world and gods around her, and suffocating under her family’s control. She slowly transforms as the story progresses, going from that angry middle-aged woman to a dignified and self-empowered priest of the gods. I maintain that Ista is the best example of a believable character’s development from one philosophical pole to it’s opposite in the course of a single Fantasy book.
Most of the characters are fantastic, though none have as amazing a character arc as Ista (this is her book after all). Liss, dy Cabon, Arhys, Gorum and Illvin are all well drawn characters whose personalities are all well depicted. And Catalara… ooh, Catalara. I’ve never read a character I’ve empathized with and hated with as much as her before. The list goes on and on, down to even minor characters.
However I do think that not all the characters get equally good treatment. I love the concept of Joan of Jokona: a scorned matriarch for the majority of her life, until she is ‘miraculously’ granted demonic magics. She uses her powers to empower her family, though she refuses to see that the demon magics are literally devouring the souls of her own children. She could have been the perfect foil of Ista, but because this bitter old woman was offscreen for virtually the entire story the author never had the chance to play up that foil aspect. Also Foy dy Gura the neophyte sorcerer was never fully fleshed out. He is constantly called ‘smarter than he appears,’ but we never see him subvert our expectations and out-clever an opponent. (Honestly I think Foy needs a story written about him to resolve this. Hint hint, if Bujold ever reads this.)
The pacing, now that I’m reading it with critical eyes, feels a smidge rushed. The book’s beginning feels rushed, like the author was busy shoving Ista out the door to get on with the events of the story. Ista’s not presented with a single real challenge until into well into the book even though it feels like she should have had challenges. I think the book’s start should have been a little slower and filled with stifling obstacles so we get a good idea of why Ista wants to escape her stifling life.
The plot, such as it is, holds together. There is a consistent antagonist in the form of Prince Sordso and his mother Joan invading Chalion-Ibra. With dozens of demons on the loose it’s up to god-cursed Ista to sort out the trouble or else her daughter’s nation of Chalion will be in some serious trouble. The plot relies somewhat on the ‘Deus-ex-machina’ trope, but as this is a story about gods literally interceding in the affairs of mankind I’m willing to forgive it. I liked the mystery aspect of this story on this re-read. You can see Ista puzzling out the magical mystery of a living dead man, and a dead living man one clue at a time.
The author’s prose is spectacular. I think Bujold used lovely language more consistently here than in CURSE OF CHALION, the prequel to this sequel. The narrative voice was consistent, compared with CURSE which I felt sometimes used ‘elegant’ prose and other times used more mundane prose, making it slightly tonally inconsistent. This quality prose manifests as droll dialog, introspective thought and splendid-if-brief descriptions, making even the most irrelevant passages a delight to read.
This is an amazing book. I wish I could go back to never having read it before, and read it fresh again. It does stand on it’s own, but I suggest that you read it as a followup to CURSE.
Goodbye Castle Porifors. I think it’s going to be a long time before I visit you again.