Having read The Curse of Chalion, the first in the Chalion series by Lois McMaster Bujold, I expected that Paladin of Souls would be a continuation of the story of Lupe dy Cazaril, or, perhaps, of the new rulers of Chalion. What it is, instead, is the story of Ista, the mother of Iselle, the current female ruler of Chalion-Ibra. It is a surprising, and rewarding, turn of subjects, yet still provides the reader with the best of what The Curse of Chalion offered, as well: a sturdy and compelling fantasy that asks the reader to think through its mysteries and confront real philosophical questions.
Ista, a woman who used to be under the grip of a familial curse released a couple of years ago, chafes under the constant watch of her ladies-in-waiting, her brother, her counselor … everyone in her home treats her with kid gloves and doesn’t allow her any leeway, despite her return to relatively normal behavior. Determined to extract herself from this oppressive environment, she takes on a pilgrimage to the capital city to visit her daughter, son-in-law, and her grandchild. Added to the façade is her claim to wish to perform pilgrimage on the way to pray for a son for Iselle while secretly pleading for absolution for a former heinous deed.
Of course, things don’t go as planned. What fun would a fantasy novel be if everything were easy and simple? Instead of having a Mother’s dedicat, Ista receives dy Cabon, a man dedicated to the Bastard instead. Her party is small and is attacked by foreign forces — they are split up, with some ending up in Porifors. There, Ista finds that she is thrust back into the world of the gods, re-granted second sight and entrusted by the tricky Bastard how to best help in a situation desperate in ways both physical and spiritual.
To me, Bujold’s writing is almost perfect. Her understanding of people and their reactions, and the ways she chooses to depict them, are spot-on. The dangerous parts are exciting, the mysteries contained within are challenging but approachable, and her exploration of fate and what it would mean to have something like a constrained free will is very interesting indeed.
Especially compelling to me was the fact that the heroine, Ista, is not a high-spirited young lady. She’s middle-aged, used to being thought of as mad, and, quite frankly, is ruthlessly efficient in what she does. She’s not your typical fantasy heroine, and I like that very much. She has experience with the gods and doesn’t want to have more, necessarily, but is thrust into it anyway. Seeing the advantage she has been granted, she uses it. She’s a thinker, as well, which endears her to me.
But perhaps the best part about her journey is a comment Ista’s character makes toward the end of the book to a man she has restored and who doubts his ability to start afresh: “‘I offer you an honorable new beginning. I do not guarantee its ending. Attempts fail, but not as certainly as tasks never attempted.'” This resonates with me for a number of reasons. I think it’s the most honest piece of advice I’ve seen in a book in a while.
Paladin of Souls is simply a beautiful book. Ista is a character of character — she has struggles with herself as to what the right thing to do is, but once she’s figured it out, she doesn’t let anything stand in the way of performing her duty. An awesome role model whose tale is masterfully told, and whose story is worth reading.