Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls (Eos, 2003)
Lois McMaster Bujold is best known for her science fiction stories, most notably her Miles Vorkosigan saga, which is in its umpteenth volume and still going strong (by which I mean that the stories haven't become formulaic and are still enjoyable reads). Lesser known have been her fantasy novels, but she made a splash with The Curse of Chalion a couple years ago, which went on to win awards. Now she's back to the same world as The Curse of Chalion with Paladin of Souls.
The story takes place approximately three years after the close of Chalion and focuses on the Dowager Royina Ista, who was an important character in Chalion, although not a major character. After the events of that previous novel, Ista has found freedom from her god-induced madness, but she is also finding herself anxious to get out and see the world a bit. However, being the widow of the previous ruler of Chalion, she can't just wander at will: a retinue is always required. So she concocts a cover story of going on pilgrimage to pray that her daughter (the current ruler) may bear a son. In reality, though, she just wants to find a little freedom from her past and her present.
On her pilgrimage, as can be expected, things don't go quite right. It seems the gods have not entirely left her alone, and so she begins to be plagued by strange dreams. She also notices that once rare demon possessions are now becoming more and more commonplace, as if the demons were being released unnaturally. Finally, she comes across some enemy Jokanan, who have conducted a sortie into Roknari lands. She is captured, but is quickly rescued by Ahrys, the March of Porifors, and taken back to his castle, where she finds things are very, very wrong.
In the span of the next few days, Ista will be involved in a mystery, attempt to put to rest the murdered soul, be possessed (again) by the gods, and save her country from a demonic invasion.
The strength of this book comes from Bujold's ability to create characters that are real. Ista is incredibly enjoyable to follow, not least because she can be grumpy, smart and lustful, all within a few sentences much like people in everyday life. Nor is there any character who is just a walk-on. Sure, there are nameless soldiers wandering around, but if the character actually has importance to the story, that character is not relegated to being mere cardboard.
The religion of the Chalion books comprises five gods. In the first book, it appeared as if the pantheon might be similar to Christian trinitarianism, but much of Paladin of Souls is spent fleshing out the true extent of the five gods, their relationships one to another, and how they interact with the humans who do and do not worship them.
In short, this is a religious book, in the sense that its primary discussions are about the relationship of man to the gods, reminiscent of Lear's observation that 'as flies are to wanton boys, are we to the gods.' It is here that Bujold's strength in characterization saves the book from becoming dull. In lesser hands, the diction would easily have become didactic, but Bujold keeps it from that by spending the first half of the book revealing a real and dynamic character in Ista. Then, when Ista finds herself being taken over by the gods, her inborn cynicism keeps the subtext from overwhelming the story.
Thus, Paladin of Souls entices at multiple levels, as all good books should. Whether you're looking for a simple distraction or for something more, you can't go wrong with Bujold's latest.
[Matthew Scott Winslow]