Paladin of Souls
(US: Eos, $24.95, 464 pages, hardcover; October 2003. UK: Voyager,
£11.99, 456 pages, trade paperback; 2003.)
This is the second book set in Lois McMaster Bujold's Fantasy Kingdom
of Chalion. It's not quite a sequel.
setting is the same, and only a couple of years have elapsed since the
action in the previous volume, but the focus has shifted sideways, to
centre on the previously minor character of Ista dy Boacia dy Chalion,
with one or two other, formerly minor players, helping her along. The
main heroes in the first Chalion book are present as back-drop, occasionally
they send a letter, or get gossiped about, so we're up to date with
their lives, but they don't intrude on the story.
Ista is the Queen-Mother of Chalion, but no old lady. Some rough handling
by a couple of Chalion's Gods a few decades back have left her emotionally
bruised, and saddled with an unfortunate reputation for madness, but
she's in a vigorous middle-aged, more handicapped by other people's
(low) expectations and her own self doubts than by real incapacities.
In fact, she's more than handicapped, she's close to smothered. In
near desperation, after the death of her own mother, Ista strikes out
on a pilgrimage. She's striving to atone for old sins and griefs, trying
to find some meaning in a life that has been partly wasted and now seems
almost barren, and very keen to get away from the millstone weight of
old retainers and well-intentioned but insensitive relatives.
The open road is indeed more agreeable, for a while, were it not for
the unfortunate plethora of demons who suddenly seem to be infesting
the Kingdom, not to mention the spate of Roknari raiders who have come
traipsing over the border for a bit of looting, burning and raping...
Soon, Ista finds her pilgrimage has metamorphosed into a saga of flight
and fight, capture and escape, refuges and mysteries, imperative demands
by wholly unwelcome Gods, and more and more of those pesky damned demons!
This book is a multi-layered and subtle thing. There's a substantial
dollop of detective-story mixed in here (Bujold is fond of them, and
does them quite well). There's a smidgen of history, several tangled
romances, some sharp clashing fights, and a sense that what was a one-novel
stand-alone fantasy is developing into a fairly rich and complex series.
I criticised Bujold's first Chalion novel for not delivering a really
full or compelling vision of a medieval world. Well, it is still, in
a lot of ways, a sanitised world we're visiting (long on elegant nobles,
short on squalid peasants) but it's a richer and more satisfyingly rounded-out
one than previously.
The book is also reasonably strong in its characters. Ista is well
drawn, stubborn, but not arrogant, intelligent, sympathetic. Her cohorts
are all pleasant, engaging people, enjoyable to read about. The villains...
are less compelling. This was a problem in the first Chalion novel,
and it's a problem here. There's a less than truly dangerous 'feel'
to the enemies Ista faces. They posture in their selfishness, their
anger and spite, but they don't truly menace, and they do rather less
harm than the real world might hand out in some of the situations Ista
Nonetheless, Bujold does have a great knack for making the reader care
what happens to her heroes. There's a real edge of pathos to some of
the tragedies and partings in this story (and it has its fair share
Ultimately, one has to allow that the Chalion sequence is developing
handsomely, building the same sort of deep background and solid, complexly
interacting characters, which has served Bujold so well in her Vorkosigan
books (though it hasn't, yet, the same keen wit). Not a compulsive read,
but a pleasurable one, and I'll look forward to the next volume.
Review by Simeon Shoul.
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