Paladin of Souls (Chalion, #2)
Lois McMaster Bujold
Paladin of Souls is a fantastic story, a tale of reluctant saints and enigmatic gods, of isolation and reconciliation and redemption. In the first novel in the series, The Curse of Chalion, we followed the journey of the ever-forgiving, ever-noble, and ever-self-sacrificing Lupe dy Cazaril. In this story, which takes place a few years later, we take up the tale of the far more imperfect Ista dy Chalion.
Bujold creates a wonderful and mythologically complex world. In Chalion, gods and demons are very real, separated from humanity by only a thin veil of reality. Gods can influence dreams and even cross the veil to embody the souls of the "saints" who allow them access. There are five gods: the Father, Mother, Daughter, Son, and the ever-enigmatic Bastard, the god of small things, the guard of demons. Yet demons sometimes escape their prison and force themselves into the souls of animals and humans alike. Initially, a human gains additional powers of sorcery, but inevitably the demon transitions from being ridden to riding--and effectively completely possessing--the human.
Ista's past involves both demons and gods. When she married into the royal family, Ista was briefly touched by the Mother, who revealed the terrible curse placed on her house and foretold the cure. However, Ista, in her stubbornness and doubt, failed to carry out the prophecy, leading to the death of her husband's greatest friend. Driven mad by guilt, Ista effectively isolated herself from reality until the events in the previous book, when the curse was finally broken. But even with the curse broken, Ista is still treated like a disobedient child by her caring relatives. Every move is watched and every care taken to limit her stress, but all this only makes Ista feel more trapped. To get away from her stifling caretakers, she decides to make a holy pilgrimage. With Liss, a female courier, as her only female companionship, the brothers Foix and Ferda to guard her, and the divine of the Bastard to act as spiritual leadership, she escapes her gilded prison.
Ista's enjoyment of her newly found freedom is interrupted when their party is attacked by invaders from a neighboring kingdom. But her rescue only leads her into deeper trouble. She finds herself in a castle where mystery and the taint of sorcery are almost palpable. Yet again, it seems that Ista is chosen as a vessel of the gods. This time, the Bastard seeks her aid in the mortal realm, and if Ista fails again, she may bring yet another curse to all of Chalion.
Like most of Bujold's stories, the plot is not straightforward and, rather than depending on a simple straightforward epic quest, tends to use character flight and sudden emergencies to lead to unexpected twists. Since this is a story by Bujold, the plot, of course, involves rape, and, as usual, this bothered me. In this case, we have female-on-male rape, and what bothered me most was how unphased all the characters were about it. As far as I could tell, there were never any recriminations or even recollections after that repulsive scene. In terms of characters, only Ista stood out to me as complex and fully realized. When I thought more about this, I realized that part of the issue is the lack of dialogue. The book is written from Ista's perspective and much of the time, summaries of conversations are reported to the reader. Without hearing the characters speak, I didn't gain a real sense of three-dimensionality from most of them other than Ista herself.
I went into this story with very mixed feelings about Ista. She is a more difficult character to like than the gloriously unselfish Caz. Ista has given up hope and is cynical about the gods and her own role, cursing them for choosing her while allowing her to fail. Yet this story also displays her bravery and stubbornness. Her journey is a wonderful tale of character growth that leaves Ista as stubborn and independent as she began, but with a deeper soul.
For me at least, the strongest draw of these books is the mythology, and Paladin of Souls truly shines here. We find out much more about the mythology and the complex history of the Bastard. I find this god fascinating. Unlike the others, he represents sin as well as purity. He guards the demons and can bring (usually ironic) evil upon the heads of those who displease him. Yet he is also the god of small things, the god of desperation, the god to turn to when all else fail. The beautiful characterization of the complex fivefold religion is really what stayed with me when I finished this story.
Overall, this book should not be read without having read Curse of Chalion, if you read the former and enjoyed it, this is a must-read, as it truly completes the tale.