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Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster BujoldUK edition4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsHugo Award winnerWhen Paladin of Souls bagged Lois Bujold her fourth Best Novel Hugo, she became the only novelist other than Heinlein to be so honored. It also won her her second Nebula. It’s a book much more traditional in its approach to fantasy fiction than its predecessor, The Curse of Chalion, a breathtaking novel that managed to be intellectually engaging, contemplative, and viscerally exciting all at once while establishing itself as stylistically distinct from the Miles Vorkosigan novels. It signaled a real maturation on the part of Bujold as a novelist. In Paladin of Souls, Bujold has departed from the literary approach she gave Chalion and is writing once again in the accessible style of the Miles stories, and the story feels like it has a little less depth, lacking Chalion’s sense of moral gravitas. I suppose I found that a tad disappointing, considering how I welcomed the new voice she gave Chalion. But in the end, in seems a petty gripe, a little like complaining that your hot fudge sundae would be better if it had a different brand of chocolate syrup. Following up a great fantasy with a “merely” excellent one is, I admit, the kind of problem most writers wish they had.

What is particularly impressive about Paladin of Souls is Bujold’s defiance of the conventional wisdom of sequel writing. One would have expected her to follow the further adventures of the noble Cazaril and his royal charges Iselle and Bergon, as they rule the united kingdoms of Chalion-Ibra in their benevolence. But none of those characters ever puts in an appearance. Instead, Bujold turns her attention to the hard-done-by mother of Iselle, the Dowager Royina Ista. 

Long thought mad due both to the family curse vanquished by Cazaril in the first book, and by her guilt over her part in the death of her husband’s most trusted advisor, Ista now grows weary of her confinement within the walls of Valenda. Overcoming the disapproval of her court, she undertakes a much-needed holiday, traveling cross-country with a very small retinue consisting of only a dozen or so men-at-arms, a rough-hewn courier girl conscripted on a whim by Ista to be her lady-in-waiting, and a couple of companions of Cazaril’s from the first novel, here fleshed out as characters more fully. There is also an itinerant monk of the order of the Bastard, the fifth and most meddlesome god in Bujold’s five-deity Quintarian religion. Ista doesn’t really mean to be undertaking a spiritual pilgrimage (however serious the monk might be), but it’s the easiest way to convince her horrified household at Valenda to let her go without a literal army at her back. She is, after all, the queen-mother of her kingdom.

When Ista’s party is captured quite shockingly by a ragtag retreating army of Roknari from the hostile enemy province of Jokona, all seems lost. But Ista and Co. are quickly rescued by the governor (the “march”) of the outlying Chalionese city of Porifors, and safely ensconced in his castle. To Ista’s alarm, the March Arhys dy Lutez is one of the acknowledged bastard sons of the man Ista helped to murder years back, in a failed and foolish attempt to remove her family curse. But soon it becomes clear that Ista’s coming to Porifors was no dumb luck, but more godly meddling at work. The dy Lutez family appears to have its own catalogue of spiritual blight, involving Arhys, his young wife Cattilara, and Arhys’s strangely comatose brother Illvin, about whom Ista has been having curious, prescient dreams.

So essentially, what we have here is a redux of the basic plot of The Curse of Chalion: Ista, it seems, has been divinely drawn to Porifors to play the Cazaril role in ridding a noble family of a dreadful burden that threatens not only them but all the land. There are differences in detail, but the premise is pretty similar to the previous book’s, which is kind of a letdown. There is the element of Ista’s chance to do some good redemptive deeds, to make up for her crime against Arhys’s father. But curiously — or perhaps for the better; it’s hard to make up one’s mind here — Bujold really downplays that aspect. If this was a deliberate choice of Bujold’s, for fear that such an open and obvious working of the redemption theme might have been mawkish, I can understand. But then, what we’re left with is an entertaining book that still wanders in search of the intellectual and thematic heft of its predecessor.

But I have enormous admiration for Bujold’s courage in taking her sequel in unexpected directions, and focusing on an unconventional fantasy heroine: a formerly mad 40-year-old widowed murderess. Truth to tell, Bujold hinted at this on the last page of Curse, in a low-key and profoundly moving scene with Cazaril in the dénouement. Here, there are moments when Ista, while a wholly winning heroine, comes across as too reminiscent of Cordelia Naismith from the Vorkosigan novels. But taken as an enjoyable adventure/romance/thriller, Paladin of Souls scores. It is nice to see the long-suffering Ista find her path to peace at last. And the unfolding mystery of just What Is Rotten in Porifors is full of compelling suspense and a few plum surprises. This is lush and immersive talespinning that, while it might not feel quite as highbrow as The Curse of Chalion, will more than satisfy the legion of fans who have so generously filled Bujold’s mantelpiece with Hugos.

Followed by The Hallowed Hunt.