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Paladin of Souls

by Lois McMaster Bujold

(US: Eos, $24.95, 464 pages, hardcover; October 2003. UK: Voyager, £11.99, 456 pages, trade paperback; 2003.)

Review by Stuart Jaffe

This was one that almost got away. cover scanHad I been reading for pure pleasure, I would have put it down after about page 50, and what a joyful experience I would have missed. Thus, this review becomes a lesson in sequels. But, first, the goods:

Paladin of Souls is a sequel to the much-praised The Curse of Chalion. I haven't read the first. Although I generally try to read series in order, it's a truism that the individual novels of a series should stand (or fall) on their own merits.

The sequel takes place three years after the events of the first novel, and our heroine, Ista dy Baocia, finds herself alone and sad. She has lost almost everyone she cared about (events depicted in the first novel, apparently) and now sits amongst her cold memories and regrets. What to do? I know! Let's go on vacation! Well, not quite.

Ista embarks on a religious pilgrimage in part to find atonement and in part to get away from a stifling life and memories. This journey takes her to Castle Porifors, which the evil Prince Sordso has brought his Jokonan army to besiege. Lord Arhys holds the castle, the border, and thus the hopes and lives of all Ista's people. Only this time, there are demons loose, and many are possessing people on both sides.

To say more would spoil the story. There is plenty of action, romance, theology, and a few chilling scenes of demonic possession. Lots of fun for an entertaining fantasy romp.

So why did this one almost get away?

Well, as I indicated in the opening, the beginning of this book failed. Let's talk about writing sequels for a moment.

One of the most difficult sections of a novel to write is the opening pages. These must create a world, set up characters and relationships, and, above all else, interest the reader. This is a tall order, and it is for this reason (especially the last part) that publishers, agents and editors take special interest in the first 50 or so pages of a novel.

Writing a sequel must do all the same work in its beginning, but added to this is the further burden of informing those who did not read the first book of all pertinent information while not boring loyal readers with redundancy; those loyal readers present another problem, though, in that you need to jog their memories so they can get back into the world of the book. In essence, a sequel is plagued by an entire previous novel that is now backstory. That's tough. There are many ways to deal with this, but Bujold chose to slog through it all in the beginning. And this bored me.

The shame of it is that the book is so good. Once Ista finally gets her butt moving and nears Castle Porifors, Bujold's award-winning talents shine forth. Where at first I'd wanted to pitch the book in the trash, now I couldn't put it down. Bujold won me over.

But how many new readers will go that length? If I had not been reviewing the book, I wouldn't have. Simply put, they shouldn't have to either.

One final note. There is a great deal of magic in this book. In Bujold's hands, magic is not a greatly understood thing, even by its practitioners -- in fact, the humans who dabble in it more often than not end up as servants to the magic rather than its masters. Magic is given a very elemental feel, as if it were part of the world instead of some CGI effect -- or, worse, a deus ex machina for the story.

Bujold is hardly the first to use this approach, but her writing style pulls out of it a unique feel -- an organic, down-to-earth sensibility that appealed to me. This is undoubtedly a major reason for the novel's success, for without it we would be reading yet another story of quasi-medieval times and all that goes with that. As it stands, the approach to magic helps strengthen the reality of this fantasy world by firming our suspension of disbelief, instead of testing it.

For those of you who like Bujold, you'll enjoy this one. I feel safe in guessing that it won't be your favourite, but it'll certainly be one you'll remember. For new readers, start with The Curse of Chalion and then try this one out. It's worth it.

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