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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.)

This is the second book set in Lois McMaster Bujold's Fantasy Kingdom of Chalion. It's not quite a sequel. cover scanThe 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 gets into.

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 of those).

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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