Paladin's Strength

by T. Kingfisher

Cover image

Series: The Saint of Steel #2
Publisher: Red Wombat Studio
Copyright: 2021
ASIN: B08WWKXXVY
Format: Kindle
Pages: 474

Buy at Powell's Books

Paladin's Strength is a sequel of sorts to Paladin's Grace, but it has different protagonists. It picks up a subplot from that novel with another former follower of the Saint of Steel. You can safely read the books in any order; there are some minor spoilers for the Paladin's Grace subplot in this book, but nothing that would matter for the enjoyment of the story.

Istvhan and his fellow brother Galen are acting as the head of a mercenary band, which has hired on to escort Master Distiller Brant and his collection of Emperor Oak barrels. In truth, they have another mission from the Temple of the White Rat: to track down a disturbing monster that leaves a trail of beheaded bodies.

Clara is a lay sister of St. Ursa, a convent that was raided by slavers who hauled away the nuns. She was left for dead in Arral territory when she fell sick, and was taken as a house slave after they nursed her back to life. The story opens with her holding a sword in front of Istvhan's tent, part of the fallout of Istvhan killing a young Arral in self-defense. The politics of that fallout are not at all what Istvhan expects. They end with Clara traveling with Istvhan's company, at least for a while.

Both Istvhan and Clara are telling the truth: Istvhan is escorting a merchant, and Clara is hoping to rescue her sisters. Both of them are also hiding a great deal. Istvhan's quiet investigation of the trail of a monster is easy enough to reveal once he knows Clara well enough. That he's a berserker who no longer has a god in control of his battle rage is another matter; the reader knows that, and of course so does Galen, but Istvhan has no intention of telling anyone else. Clara has her own secrets about herself and the sisters of St. Ursa, ones that neither the reader nor Istvhan knows.

This is a T. Kingfisher novel about paladins, so of course it's also a romance. If you've read Kingfisher's other books, you know she writes slow burn romances, but Paladin's Strength is next level. Istvhan and Clara have good reasons to not want to get involved and to doubt the other person's attraction or willingness, but this goes far beyond the obvious to become faintly absurd. If you like the sort of romance where both leads generate endless reasons to not pursue the relationship (some legitimate, some not) while steadfastly refusing to talk to each other about them and endlessly rehashing hints and interpretations, you're in for a treat. For me, it was too much and crossed over into irritation. By the two-thirds point, Kingfisher was gleefully throwing obstacles in their way to drag out the suspense, and I just wanted everyone to shut up about having sex and get on with the rest of the story.

That's unfortunate because I really liked Clara. She isn't the same type as Grace, Halla from Swordheart, or even Slate from Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine, the other novels set in this universe. She's self-contained, physically intimidating, cautious, deliberate, and very good at keeping her own counsel. I won't spoil her secret, since it's fun to work it out at the start of the book, but it's a lovely bit of characterization and world-building that Kingfisher handles with a thoughtful eye for its ramifications and effect on Clara's psychology. I would happily read more books about Clara.

I liked Istvhan well enough when he was doing anything other than mooning over Clara. As with all of Kingfisher's paladins, he's not a very subtle person, but he's a good straight man for Clara's quiet bemusement. He fills the paladin slot in this story, which is all he needs to do. There's enough else going on with Clara and with the plot — two separate major plotlines, plus a few subplots — that Paladin's Strength can use a protagonist who heads straight forward and hits things until they fall down.

The mooning, though... this is going to be a matter of personal taste. I think the intent was to contrast Istvhan's rather straightforward lustful appreciation with Clara's nuanced and trauma-laced reservations, and to play Istvhan's reactions in part for humor. I'm sure it works for some people, but I found Istvhan juvenile and puerile (albeit, to be clear, in a respectful and entirely consensual way), which didn't help me invest in a romance plot that I already thought dragged on too long. Thankfully the characters finally get past this in time for a dramatic and satisfying conclusion to the plot.

The joy of Paladin's Grace (and Swordheart for that matter) was the character dynamics and quirky female lead, which made the romance work even when Stephen was being dense. The joy of Paladin's Strength for me was primarily Clara's matter-of-fact calm bemusement and secondarily the plot and the world-building. (Kingfisher's gnoles continue to be the best thing about this setting.) None of that helps the romance as much, and the slow burn was far, far too slow for me, which lowers this one a notch. Still, this was fun, and I'll keep reading books about the Temple of the White Rat and their various friends and encounters for as long as Kingfisher keeps writing them.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-03-30

Last modified and spun 2021-03-31