I enjoyed Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (2001) more than I had anticipated, which means it was okay, not terrible, and way better than the books from her Vorkosigan series. (This is an example of why I am incapable of rating books using a number system.) Although Chalion was pleasant, it concluded satisfactorily, calling to question the need for a follow-up novel. I loved series novels in my younger years, but I have little patience for them now that I recognize them as money-milkers that are never as strong as a single, thorough story with a beginning, middle, and end between the covers.
Authors: Unless you’re writing a lame kid’s series, cram it in to one book. If your ideas are not good enough for the first book, or you haven’t even thought about it until the fans started asking, please, for the love of the Bastard, let it be. Bujold circumvents this rule by remaining in the same Chalion universe, but pursues the stories of new and minor characters in a different part of the world. She also addresses some of the weaknesses in her previous novel.
In other words, Paladin of Souls is not what I had feared: The Continued Amazing Adventures of Cazaril and Friends (and gods).
Ista, the maddened widow mother of Curse of Chalion’s heroine Iselle, is now free of the family curse that plagued her loved ones for generations. Now she wants independence, but her behavior over the years has convinced others that she is cray-cray and requires 24-7 babysitting. She disguises her escape as a holy pilgrimage with a group of strangers, despite her less than pious beliefs about the gods. Her journey is cut short by a Roknari raid, and Ista winds up in the care of the handsome Lord Arhys (and his beautiful wife). But not all is as it seems in Lord Arhys’ hold, where he never eats or sleeps, his wife sneaks around at night, and his brother is comatose after a calamitous affair with a Roknari princess.
Both Chalion and Paladin address issues of (royal) female oppression in a medieval world as both of the stories’ female leads devise ways to break out of their suffocating royal roles. In Chalion, Iselle arranges her own marriage; in Paladin, Ista arranges her own pilgrimage. Both women are socially and politically manipulative, only because more overt methods are automatically oppressed. Their situations remind the reader of a woman’s imprisonment by her womb, in a world where safe birth control does not exist, and a woman’s fertility determines her future. Barren women lose status to concubines as husbands spread their seed (and their influence) in order to secure their lordly holdings. Alternately, sex and rape may result in unwanted pregnancies and subsequent unwanted family ties. I recently criticized Andre Norton’s Witch World for using sex and rape as a device to deactivate her witches, reinforcing old-fashioned ideals of purity, as if purity and power are intrinsically linked. Perhaps Norton was attempting such a metaphor and I failed to see it.
By the 21st century, none of this commentary is new, and it’s certainly not mind-blowing in the world of SF. (And it’s a bit inconsistent, considering the dubiously high literacy levels among the lower class.) Instead, the most intriguing aspect of Paladin of Souls, and certainly what differentiates itself from The Curse of Chalion and its medieval fantasy brethren, is the middle-aged, widowed female protagonist. Ista is a mother of adult children, she has wrinkles and dulling hair, she thinks before she speaks, and her knees hurt when she treks and quests all day. She’s not young. She used to be beautiful, but she’s aging and she accepts it. She’s a different kind of fantasy heroine.
I enjoy reading about mature characters. I enjoyed Blue Mars, where Kim Stanley Robinson’s hotheaded scientists finally calmed in their aged, wizened states. I took pleasure in the wisecracking courtship of the mature protagonists in R. A. MacAvoy’s Tea with the Black Dragon. Likewise, I enjoyed Ista’s adventures from the perspective of the older, wiser woman. In a world where SF book awards compete to have the most diverse author shortlists, the protagonists remain the same: young men and women with fit bodies and spunky personalities. Older men often appear as heroes, but we rarely see older women, or elderly, or fat people in positive lead roles.
Bujold addresses her biggest oversight of The Curse of Chalion by introducing a character who is critical of Chalion’s religious systems. In the previous book, Bujold’s world is shaped and molded by the inventive religion of her characters, but it always works. Doubts and cynicism don’t exist. Cazaril’s blasphemies serve only to emphasize the reality of Chalion’s religious system. However, in Paladin of Souls, Ista’s very negative experience with her gods influences her denial of their manipulations. While others are chosen by gods, she is haunted by them. “I would throw myself off a precipice first, except that I would land in the arms of the gods, Whom I do not wish to see again… The world is ashes and the gods are a horror” (Loc. 1690). Of course, this all wraps up nicely as Ista comes to terms with her demon-gods and becomes a born-again Quintarian—great for the religious readers of SF, but not so satisfying for the skeptics who might prefer to see Ista overthrow those manipulative gods in favor of independent thought.
While the scope Bujold’s world expands in this book, her prose weakens with redundant dialogue dumps. At least a quarter of the novel could be shaved by dropping unnecessary rote conversations, a habit well-practiced in her beloved Vorkosigan series. If the reader is present for an event, do they also have to be present for the conversation about the event, and then the conversation about the conversation about the event? Cut that out and replace it with, “And then she told him about what happened, and he thought it was whack.” Okay, maybe not that, but something succinct like that.
For feminist fantasy fiction, Paladin of Souls is a pleasant read, with a rich religious world, but bland in its effect, much like its predecessor. My opinion means little in this case considering it won the SF Triple Crown in 2004, securing the Hugo, the Locus, and the Nebula awards, meaning it was a favorite of the fans, the serious fans, and the writers.