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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 Robert I Katz

Lois McMaster Bujold is well known cover scanas the author of the Miles Vorkosigan series (The Vor Game, Barrayar, A Civil Campaign, etc.), which has garnered her to date a total of two Nebula and four Hugo awards. While not nearly as well known outside of science fiction and fantasy as J.K. Rowling or Anne Rice or even Laurell K. Hamilton, she is a superstar within the genre. I've read a number of the Vorkosigan books and liked them very much.

Paladin of Souls is the second in the fantasy series begun in The Curse of Chalion. The current book begins with Ista, the mother of the newly crowned Royina, considering her options. In the prior book, Ista was instrumental in lifting the Curse, which had blighted the court of her husband and, among other things, driven her mad. The Curse gone, Ista is now sane, but unhappy with her lot. Middle-aged and widowed, she has little to do and so decides to get away and forget her cares (beware of what you wish for...). She takes a pilgrimage and winds up in the castle of Porifors, whose "March", or Lord, has rescued her from a band of invading brigands. The March, named Arhys, seems too good to be true. Noble, handsome, incredibly sexy, a great swordsman and loyal companion, he has only one flaw (which I shall not reveal, since it is central to the plot). Arhys's brother, Illvin, lies in a coma, the nature of which baffles the residents of Porifors. Ista is blessed (or cursed) by the gods, particularly by the fifth god, the "Bastard", and can see things other men cannot. She quickly discerns the nature of the problem and, not at all surprisingly, the book comes to a satisfactory conclusion.

The plot works quite well, but is predictable and hardly original. Many other fantasies have ploughed the same Earth. Ista is a complex, sympathetic heroine. The other characters are not as finely drawn but are certainly better than many of the cardboard cutouts and spear carriers that litter second rate fantasy.

Someone once said (I forget who) that, "Style is supposed to be the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the hat." Many highly regarded authors have had pedestrian styles: in sf/f, Isaac Asimov comes to mind, and Larry Niven, and Robert A. Heinlein, but these authors' styles served well enough to tell original and compelling stories. Bujold's style is hardly elegant and not at all lyrical. For example, at one point Ista delivers a message from one of the Gods to a hero who is about to die: "Your Father calls you to His Court. You need not pack: you go garbed in glory as you stand..." Considering the context, "You need not pack" seems quite beside the point, if not downright silly.

But, in the end, Paladin of Souls is a competent and entertaining fantasy by an author who deserves her fame. It's not Lois McMaster Bujold's best book, and it is not one of the best fantasies I have recently read, but it is worth spending a few hours on, and I doubt her many fans will be disappointed.

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