Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls is the sequel to The Curse of Chalion, a book I absolutely loved. Still, I was unsure about picking it up because I thought the protagonist’s brief appearances in Chalion #1 were the weaker parts of the book, if vital for plot development, and wasn’t excited to delve into a whole book centered on her. I’m glad I overcame my hesitation though, because this book was almost as good as the first. (Spoiler warning ahead)
After Cazaril lifts the curse of Chalion at the end of the previous novel, mad Ista finally feels relief. But she continues to be haunted by her past actions, and grieves for the lives lost to the curse. Now that her daughter is Royina (Queen) and safe at court, she’s at a loss of what to do with herself and fears that she may go insane in a different way if she has to spend the rest of her life caged within her castle.
She decides that she must escape, however briefly, and uses the excuse of a pilgrimage for her new grandchild as the perfect justification. Cazaril dispatches the dy Ferda twins to guard he,, a wise precaution as tensions rise along the Roknari border. She also picks up the adventurous courier Liss as a handmaiden and “chaperone” and a divine of the Bastard (priest of one of the Gods), who comes in handy as more and more escaped demons are found in the demesne.
Although Ista feels free at first, her prophetic dreams, that first emerged while she was under the curse, reappear despite her attempts to ignore them. Their fake pilgrimage becomes diverted after raiders nearly capture Ista and her rescuer hides secrets of his own that require Ista’s spiritual expertise to resolve. Once again, Ista is plunged into the path the Gods want her to walk and hopes (not prays!) that this time she’ll fulfill their mission with her sanity intact.
Ista really developed as a character in this book. Before, you caught glimpses of the intelligence and will beyond the crazy, but here she shines as a multi-faceted character with a layered history. Sure, she’s emotionally scarred, but she has flashes of humor, remains compassionate about her retinue, and keeps her wits about her even in stressful situations. Her journey of recovery is resonant and realistic, and readers will definitely be intrigued by where it takes her.
Refreshingly for fantasy (or indeed any genre these days), the romantic angle takes a backseat. Ista is around 40 and feels her age. She has already had one doomed marriage that was nothing like she dreamed of as a child. Her husband was much older, had a male lover, and kept deadly secrets from her. She isn’t looking for love, and while acknowledging her lust, doesn’t fall prey to it. Even when she does find a new man, she doesn’t swoon over him and forget everything else – she remains clear, expresses her feelings and fears coherently, and works with him as equal partners to solve the crisis.
Ista grapples with the Gods even more than Cazaril did, for their interference ruined her life once and she’s not keen on going through that again. Yet she embraces them when it becomes clear that she cannot save lives without their aid. This text delves even further into the Gods and demons of this world, and conflicting spiritual doctrines (like in our world) contribute to the conflict. Once again, both the internal and external spiritual struggles prove to be a highlight of the tale.
I love this series because the world-building is fantastic, but has intriguing parallels to our world. Additionally, the female characters are complex and demonstrate powerful agency, separate from and sometimes greater than the men in their lives. If there’s anything negative I can say about it, it’s that I missed the characters from the first book and wish they had a bigger role to play.
For those readers who love swashbuckling and heroism, for the readers who love politics and power plays, for the readers looking for a little love, it’s all here along with magic, murder, and general mayhem.