Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
Avon/Eos HCVR: ISBN 0380979020 PubDate: 10/01/03
Review by EJ McClure
489 pgs. List price $ 24.95
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Lois McMaster Bujold’s newest novel, Paladin of Souls, is not what you expect of a fantasy novel—not a mysterious wizard, distressed damsel or sword-swinging knight in sight. Yet I was intrigued from the first pages of leisurely narration by Ista, the widow of the Roya Ias, and mother of Chalion’s new Royina. Most of her household either doubts Ista’s sanity, or fears for her safety. They would be wiser to fear for their own, for when the gods of Chalion begin to work through Ista, the results are …. well, not what you would expect.
The death of Ista’s formidable mother, the Dowager Provincara, gives Ista the taste of something she has nearly forgotten—freedom. A chance encounter with a party of pilgrims sparks in her the desire to see the world outside the walls of her mother’s castle. What better way to escape the smothering confines of dull routine, tedious duty and hovering servants than to go on pilgrimage herself?
Obstacles are many, but Ista doggedly surmounts them all. In short order she dragoons Liss, a spunky young courier, into service as her chaperone, acquires a posse of guardsmen on loan from the Chancellor of Chalion, and divests herself of all the baggage that normally encumbers of a woman of her station. After commandeering the portly yet affable dy Cabon as her spiritual guide, Ista sets off to visit an assortment of quaint shrines known chiefly for setting an excellent table.
It seems a pleasant vacation, at first. The pastoral surroundings and abundance of good cheer inspire romantic impulses in the swashbuckling dy Gura brothers, to Liss’s consternation…and Ista’s amusement. Not until the first nightmare troubles her sleep does she suspect that anything other than an innocent whim is guiding her destiny. Which of the five gods sent the dream, Ista does not know. Nor does she wish to find out. She was used to do a god’s will once before, and wants nothing more to do with the supernatural. Leave sainthood to fools and innocents, thank you very much.
Soon the nightmares are the least of her troubles. Her party is attacked by a bear, and no normal bear, but one possessed by a demon. Ista realizes the true nature of the threat too late to stop Foix dy Gura from heroically slaying the bear, and becoming host for the demon in turn. Things go from bad to worse when they cross paths with a band of marauding Jokonan soldiers. In the headlong flight, Ista is separated from her companions, and eventually captured. It does not take her long to figure out that this is no mere raiding party; the entire realm of Chalion is in dire peril. Rescue by the handsome and chivalrous young Arhys de Lutez only makes matters worse.
By now, the plot is galloping along at the break-neck pace that fans of the Vorkosigan saga expect from Bujold. Rich in tantalizing tidbits of foreshadowing, colorfully drawn characters and wry humor; Paladin of Souls is a masterwork from an author at the height of her creative powers. Shrewd, pragmatic, yet sympathetic to the tumultuous troubles of green love and honor, Ista dy Baocia is a more engaging heroine than any young damsel. Not since Cordelia Naismith in Shards of Honor has Bujold created a female character of such powerful authenticity. The medieval intrigues of Chalion, the vivid descriptions of countryside and combat, and the strikingly original presentation of magic and divinity endow Paladin of Souls with a gripping immediacy that kept me turning pages as the clock ticked unheeded. Paladin is even better than its predecessor, The Curse of Chalion, a rare accomplishment for the second book of a series.