Paladin of Souls
Lois McMaster Bujold

NOTE: The geography and religions of the world of the Five Gods are summarized in my earlier review of The Curse of Chalion. If you’re confused, I suggest starting with that one.

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

I have a confession to make: I read the Five Gods series way out of order. As a card-carrying OCD-haver, this bothers me. It’s been so many years that I no longer have any idea when I first stumbled across Paladin of Souls in the library, but it has to have been sometime during high school. Whatever the case, I had no idea that I was looking at the second book in a series. I liked the cover because I absolutely do judge books by their covers and the title sounded promising, so it came home with me, and I liked it enough that I went looking for the prequel. The rest, as usual, is history. And I have to admit that, while I loved Paladin the first time I read it, nowadays I usually read it as a chaser to cure the whopping Chalion hangover I always get from The Curse of Chalion, but it is always just slightly disappointing in comparison to what came before it. (Also, fun story: I just went dumpster-diving through an earlier prototype of this blog, which has been mega dead for years, to dredge up the review I started in 2016 when I was still trying to make that blog a thing. And, much like its subject, it disappointed me.)

I have to admit that part of my disappointment has to do with the absence of the characters I loved in the first book, who are mentioned but never seen. The Curse of Chalion introduced Cazaril, a traumatized vet who had lost his faith in the gods, and followed him through a labyrinthine journey of treason, betrayal, and religious theory. Paladin of Souls picks up three years later, but Cazaril isn’t there. Instead we follow Ista, a traumatized dowager royina (queen) who has also lost her faith in the gods, but for different reasons: the gods actually made some pretty substantial promises to her about twenty years before the events of the story, but her mostly unguided attempt to break the curse upon the House of Chalion ended with the drowning death of Lord Arvol dy Lutez, second-in-command and lover to her husband, the Roya Ias. Her sainthood was rescinded in an eyeblink, the curse remained firmly in place for another seventeen years, and the gods have been ghosting her ever since. She is, understandably, furious.

In the present day, Ista is forty years old, freed from the curse for three years and still living in her mother’s castle in Valenda. Her mind is no longer fogged by the curse, but everyone from her family to her servants is convinced that she’s nuts, and they (lovingly) obstruct every effort she makes, however innocuous, to get some alone time. Their well-intentioned overprotectiveness has reduced Ista to the status of a wayward child, and, though she fights for agency, it is never granted to her. It is in this state, at loose ends in the wake of her mother’s funeral and out of her mind with boredom and suppressed fury, that she meets a party of travelers on pilgrimage to the town of Taryoon. Among this party is a woman named Caria, thrice widowed but completely cheerful, who has seized on the pilgrimage as an excuse to go on holiday without suffering familial disapproval. Following Caria’s example, Ista petitions her guardians for permission to go on a pilgrimage of her own, and – with the long-distance intervention of Cazaril, the current Chancellor of Chalion – finally leaves Valenda at the head of the smallest party she could negotiate. She is accompanied in her travels by Ferda and Foix dy Gura, commanders of a small troop of soldiers tasked with protecting her, and by Liss, a young courier who acts as her lady-in-waiting; and all of them are nominally shepherded by Learned Chivar dy Cabon, an inexperienced divine (priest) dedicated to the Bastard.

For a while, everything goes well. The pilgrimage is exactly as peaceful and restorative as Ista was hoping it would be, and she has little to do besides ambling peacefully down little-traveled roads and observing the burgeoning triangle of attraction between Liss and the dy Gura brothers. Unfortunately, reality cannot be ignored forever: war is gathering along the northern border of Chalion due to the upcoming military campaign against the Roknari port Visping, and – after Foix is possessed by a demon following a disturbing encounter with a dying bear – Ista decides to go home before she and her troop get into worse trouble. It sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice her sensible plans get totally scotched when her party stumbles across a raiding party from the Roknari princedom Jokona. Captured by the Jokonans, they spend a few days being marched through the province of Caribastos before the raiders are massacred by soldiers from the nearby fort Porifors. The prisoners are quickly freed, and Ista finds herself face to face with March (lord) Arhys dy Lutez, son of the man she accidentally drowned twenty years ago.

This isn’t actually as bad as it sounds. Arhys never knew his father, and has no idea how he died. While Arvol spent all his time in the capital with Roya Ias, Arhys was raised by his mother at Porifors. (As for Arvol’s inadvertent murder, that turns out to be more of a third-date topic, and it isn’t introduced the minute she meets him.) Ista is strongly attracted to him, but her quiet hopes for a fling come to nothing when she is introduced to Arhys’s wife, the young and beautiful and extremely grating Marchess Cattilara “Catti” dy Lutez. Though she initially attributes her discomfort around Cattilara to jealousy, she discovers soon enough that Cattilara has somehow got hold of a demon, and has been forcing it to keep Arhys alive ever since he died three months ago. To do this, the demon has been keeping Arhys’s younger brother Illvin in a comatose state and stealing energy from him while he’s unconscious, which is…………creepy. Don’t even get me started on Catti’s sex life, because her demon’s methods are deeply problematic.

Meanwhile, Ista receives increasingly suggestive dreams sent to her by the Bastard, a trickster god who delights in antagonizing her. Infuriated by the Bastard’s interference but too intrigued (read: attracted to Illvin) to beg off, she reluctantly becomes a saint again in time to help Arhys and Illvin – who eventually does wake up – deal with a full-blown Jokonan invasion, complete with a small army of enslaved demons. Straightening out all of Porifors’ problems is no easy task, but everything comes out right in the end: Arhys is released to his genuine death, and, one hopes, to a peaceful afterlife; Ista’s family comes looking for her, bringing her older brother and his army with them, which quickly puts paid to the Jokonans; and Ista breaks it to her brother and assorted concerned parties that she intends to become an itinerant saint of the Bastard, traveling through hostile regions in order to expel demons. The widowed Cattilara returns to her family, and Porifors is left under Illvin’s command. Finally, when everyone else has left, Ista and Illvin become lovers. It can reasonably be assumed that Ista will never be bored again, or locked up in a castle against her will.

There are things that I wish were better about the book in general, but the world-building is incredible. I love the world of the five gods, which is undeniably fantastical without ever being unbelievable. I’m not sure about the French phrases Bujold tosses around since it’s not the real world, but, since Darthaca is France-equivalent, perhaps this was intentional. And yet, even though the world is so different from our own, it isn’t unrecognizable. It is easy to understand from the very first page, and even somebody who accidentally picks up Paladin of Souls before they find out about The Curse of Chalion – naming no names – would have an easy time understanding the setting. I genuinely did not realize this was a sequel when I first picked it up, because it doesn’t read like one. It’s nice to have the background of the first book, if only for the little “ah-ha!” moments that make my bookish heart happy, but not necessary. Even better, the book doesn’t feel the need to rehash its prequel in the opening chapter. It illuminates as it goes along, nicely explaining what it needs to explain without ever lecturing. It’s tremendously well done, and, like its predecessor, it has endless reread value. While it’s true that I always get annoyed every time Ista and/or her party are ambushed by Jokonans, which after a certain point seems to happen every few chapters, the storytelling is mesmerizing, and it hooks me every damn time.

The trouble is that the writing is nowhere near as good as it is in Chalion. This is part of the reason it reads more like a debut than a sequel. Where Chalion was a little stiff but still well-written, Paladin suffers tremendously from clunky prose, run-on sentences, and the worst dialogue I’ve ever read, which unfortunately seems to be typical for Bujold. I’m sorry, but I will never believe that people have ever spoken the way Bujold writes. I don’t care how highborn they are, this dialogue is inexcusable. Bujold writes dialogue the same way she writes prose, and the characters monologue so elaborately you’d think they were all writing their own novels out loud. The phrase “drew breath” is abused past the point of absurdity, as are the handful of pretentious words Bujold seems to love. The word “undertake,” in the context of a Bujold book, is officially on my shitlist. It would be one thing if the dialogue were successfully stylized, but some of the monologues are so lame I actually skip over them, whether in the print book or the audiobook. (Ahem, Ista’s death-on-a-demon-horse speech.) The writing in Chalion drew me right in, but Paladin‘s stilted, repetitive prose is capable of putting me off entire chapters. Ista’s neverending internal monologues, especially when she is fuming alone in bed and trying to resist the Bastard’s temptations, are particularly irritating. And, regarding that audiobook: sometimes it’s nice to use a period or two so I can take a bathroom break without pausing the book in the middle of a paragraph-length sentence. I have struggled in the past with figuring out when the damn sentence was going to end, and have still not gotten it right. Just saying.

The other problem – though this is more of a personal gripe than a technical issue – is that the story is oddly chick-flicky. If you crossed Bridget Jones’s Diary with The Lord of the Rings and replaced Frodo with a forty-year-old widow, this literally would be the result. Despite the demons and the highfalutin prose, the book seems to have been written with some very stereotypical female fantasies in mind. Ista starts out lonely, single, and horny. She is singlehandedly rescued by a handsome sword-wielding horseman, who flirts with her shamelessly before she finds out that he’s married. She even gets to ride on his lap for a little bit (you know, before he introduces his wife). The wife is obsessed with him and barely lets him out of her sight, but luckily he has a hot younger brother. Cue sexual tension and uncontrollable flirting. Add in a good dollop of the playful and almost obligatory sexual assault affectionately supplied by the Bastard, and I’m sure the publishers will be knocking down your door. I am particularly peeved by the Bastard’s habit of molesting Ista, which – though in line with His character, to be sure – does not seem necessary in the context of the rest of the book. In Ista’s first Bastard-generated dreams, she is naked and uncooperative; when she finally cooperates with him, she is granted clothes. This really is not a good look for a book touting a strong-minded female protagonist who theoretically is supposed to have at least some agency. Character agency is a fleeting thing in the world of Chalion, in which gods can manipulate humans into accepting sainthood, but we can do better than that.

Having said that, I do have to admit that I am not entirely annoyed with Catti’s character. I’m not saying she has a lot of it, I’m just saying she starts out as this silly, gossipy, and – yes – somewhat catty twenty-something-year-old but gradually reveals a core of strength and independence that wasn’t obvious from her initial chapters. Granted, her personality is largely built around her obsession with Arhys, but at the end it is suggested that she can and will grow. And even if all her strength was used to keep her husband alive, I don’t feel like she’s been mistreated by the narrative. In a book whose protagonist is deliberately trained and groomed by her molestor (NO, I am not fucking going to let that go), this is a sort of saving grace. Of course, the nitpicky bean-counter in me now wants to point out that it’s not good when a secondary character has more agency than the protagonist and goddammit I’m gonna let her because this is driving me crazy. And, yes, I get that Ista could not be thrown untrained against an army of demons, and it was good that the Bastard provided her with at least some guidance – unlike the other gods, who completely failed her during her first sainthood and then fucked off and left her in the ashes to deal with the consequences – but I despise his teaching methods, and I’m pretty sure Ista would agree.

In summary: The Curse of Chalion was phenomenal. Paladin of Souls seems like it was copied from some handbook on feminine fantasies. If you cut out the fantasy element, you are left with such stuff as chick lit is made on, which is fine if that was the intention, if a bit disappointing. None of the story is meaningless, and the romance does not negate the impact of the rest of the journey; that stands just fine on its own. There’s a lot going on, but in the end the story is really about a war between two angry middle-aged women who have found very different ways of coping with their trauma, and that is delightful. It’s just that, in a genre not typically represented by ass-kicking middle-aged women, I really thought Ista deserved better.