Monday 25 December 2017

Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold is best known for her long-running Miles Vorkosigan series, but she has occasionally written different kinds of novels, including in the classic fantasy genre. One of these is The Curse of Chalion, first published in 2001 and reviewed on this blog in August 2011; two years later this resulted in a sequel, Paladin of Souls, which I have only just got around to reading. While Paladin is a sequel, it effectively stands alone so you don't have to read Chalion first. However, it contains so many intriguing references to past events that I had to pick up Chalion to read again, so I'll start with that, by repeating my previous review, slightly amended:

The story is set on an unspecified planet with vague geography (no maps) which seems to be a kind of alternative Earth, judging by the plants and animals described. There are the usual small kingdoms in uneasy juxtaposition, fighting occasional wars in various combinations. Military technology consists of swords and crossbows. The religion has five gods with different roles (although one bunch of heretics only worships four), but while there is occasional evidence that the gods exist, they rarely get involved in human affairs. There isn't even any magic in the usual sense of practitioners casting spells, with one exception: Death Magic. Anyone can learn how to do this, with enough research and determination; it involves calling on one of the gods to send a demon to kill a hated enemy. The only catch is that the person working the magic invariably dies too. There is also the deadly curse inflicted on the ruling house of Chalion, referenced in the title.

The hero and only viewpoint character of the story, Cazaril, is a minor lord and former courtier and soldier who has fallen on hard times due to betrayal and subsequent slavery. Penniless, exhausted, and still half-crippled by injury, he makes his way to Valenda, a city in the land of Chalion in whose court he had worked as a young page some twenty years before, in search of some menial job and a place to live. There he meets Iselle, a royesse (princess) of Chalion, and finds himself reluctantly roped in to act as her secretary/tutor. He tries to impart some of his hard-won wisdom to the headstrong young royesse but when the action moves to the royal court in Cardegoss, Cazaril is tested to the limit in his determination to protect Iselle from the political and magical dangers surrounding her.

The setting sounds somewhat unoriginal as similar territory has been marched over countless times by other authors, but Bujold adds her own distinctive style. She is a natural and intelligent story-teller, injecting occasional flashes of wry humour (an element which tends to be sadly lacking in fantasy, in which authors often take their creations much too seriously). Her characterisation is as good as usual and the reader soon comes to care about her characters and what happens to them. There is something of the flavour of Guy Gavriel Kay in the writing, but Bujold is less dark and elegiac. After a slowish start the pace gradually accelerates and I read the last half of this substantial (500 page) tome in one sitting, late into the night: something which I rarely do.

The Curse of Chalion may appear somewhat formulaic but if you enjoy this kind of story this is about as good as it ever gets. 

I don't have anything to add to this assessment after a second reading, except that I still found it compelling and, yep, I read until late into the night to finish it again! It is rare these days for me to enjoy a story so much that I hate putting it down and can't wait to pick it up again, but Bujold has the skill to press that button.

Paladin begins three years after the events in Chalion and, although the background and some of the characters are the same, different people take centre stage: most notably the heroine Ista, who is the Dowager Royina (widowed mother to the Roya or queen); and the soldier brothers Ferda and Foix, who are less important characters in the first book. The story follows the life of the lonely and frustrated Ista, trapped in the provincial city of Valenda following the death of her mother. She decides to go on a pilgrimage as an excuse to escape from the stifling court, and that is the start of a series of adventures which see her battling demon-driven invaders while she tries to sort out what the gods want her to do.

Other characters in Chalion, particularly the hero Lord Cazaril and Ista's fiery daughter Roya Iselle, are mentioned quite frequently but never appear, and none of the action is set in Cardegoss, the capital city. Some new characters are added early on, notably Liss the courier, a young woman who becomes Ista's servant and companion, and Chivar dy Cabon, a Divine. Later, these are joined by two other brothers, Arhys and Illvin, commanders of Porifors (a border fortress), and Arhys' young wife Cattilara, whose combined plight (due to magic again) forms the main plot thread of much of the book.

Ista is a sympathetic and likeable heroine so the reader is soon rooting for her, and as the story is threaded with Bujold's characteristic humour, it is a great read and just as difficult to put down as Chalion.  Highly recommended.