Paladin of Souls

by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cover image

Series: Chalion #2
Publisher: Eos
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0-380-97902-0
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 456

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I must admit, my snap judgement about the Hugo award for this book was wrong and the people who corrected me were right. This isn't a typical fantasy sequel to Curse of Chalion, isn't just more of the same, and is a legitimately good novel in its own right.

While this is certainly a sequel to Curse of Chalion, set later in the same world and featuring a few of the same characters, it easily stands on its own. I think the reading experience is richer if you've read the prior book, but it's not necessary. Paladin of Souls concentrates on one of the most intriguing characters from Curse of Chalion, Ista, and pulls off a surprising shift in tone and style to reflect her viewpoint instead of the drier and more analytical tone of Cazaril, while taking her away from nearly all of the people and events of the previous book.

Bujold also corrects my biggest complaint and adopts a noticeable and enjoyable narrative style. Ista's voice is present in the story, clearly communicating a cynical weariness, curiosity, and determination that is the strength of the story. Even when events get bogged down in a lot of explaining and meandering, it's Ista's attitude and voice that kept me turning pages. I really enjoyed how she got pulled into events despite herself and ended up finding a purpose because she just couldn't leave a problem alone.

Once again, the story ends up revolving around Bujold's simple and effective mythological system and around the nature of saints and the way gods affect the world through people. I'm not sure if she's going to find enough material for the third book that's in the works, but there was enough left for a second. More attention is paid to demons and black magic this time, providing the major threat of the story, and despite a few tendencies that direction, Bujold avoids black and white morality even with them. The god with the most central role this time is the Bastard, a thoroughly enjoyable god of misfits and tricksters, and by the end of the book I was wishing for an experience with a god like that.

The beginning and middle are, unfortunately, still a bit of a slog, particularly since Bujold is setting up some fairly complex character relationships and background history and this forces quite a few extended expository conversations. At least she does put that time to another use, also using it to firmly establish Ista's perspective, character, and motives, but it's still not as tightly paced as I'd like. I think it's more even than Curse of Chalion, though; there's nothing here as slow as the first 150 pages of the previous book.

As with Curse, I was impressed by the degree of skill in the writing. Bujold sticks with a tight third-person perspective throughout the entire book, never confusing the reader and letting them stay inside Ista's head. While the good guys and the bad guys are fairly clear, there's enough moral ambiguity and finely balanced choices to keep me happy, and the plot twists don't trip over themselves.

This is a very solid fantasy novel that deserved the Hugo and Nebula that it got. Recommended if you have any liking for this sort of thing.

Followed by The Hallowed Hunt.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-05-13

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