Review Date: 21 January 2004

Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Eos, New York, NY, September 2003, 464 pages, Hardcover, US$24.95, ISBN:0-380-97902-0
a review by Rich Horton

Paladin of Souls is Lois McMaster Bujold's latest novel, her third fantasy, and a fairly direct sequel to The Curse of Chalion. It seems that Bujold's energies are now focussed on her fantasy secondary world, centered on the Royacy of Chalion, which has certain similarities to Renaissance era Iberia. At any rate, I understand that her next novel will be another Chalionese book. This seems a good choice -- I liked both The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls better than her most recent Vorkosigan book, Diplomatic Immunity.

Paladin of Souls is the story of the Dowager Royina Ista of Chalion, mother of the new Royina Iselle, and widow of the late, cursed Roya Ias. The Curse of Chalion covered the events leading to the lifting of a terrible curse on the royal family of Chalion. Ista, who bore bravely years of living under the curse, with a terrible load of guilt and fear, as well as the burden of a loveless marriage and possession by a god which made her essentially insane, is now free of that. But her family and retainers are very protective of her -- her regained sanity remains in doubt, and she has lived a very circumscribed life. As the book opens she is chafing under what is in essence imprisonment, and she conceives the notion of a pilgrimage, ostensibly to pray for the birth of a grandson, but in reality simply to get out of her household for some time. She recruits, partly by accident, a new attendant who is actually a not very wellborn young woman named Liss,distinguished mainly by her horsemanship (she is a courier); and a priest of the Bastard to guide her pilgrimage: a young, fat, irreverent, and rather lusty fellow. She also accepts the protection of a group of soldiers led by two brothers, Ferda and Foix.

What she had hoped would be an interesting journey rather quickly turns dangerous. There are rumors of a great outbreak of demons, and disastrously one soon possesses Ferda. Then they run into a raiding party from the neighboring princedom of Jokona, who are adherents to a (mutually) heretical form of the Chalionese religion. They are rescued by a local nobleman, a great fighter and very handsome man named Arhys. At Arhys's castle, Ista finds a very jealous wife, and a severely ill half-brother, and, worse, indications of more aggression from the Jokonans. All this is surely tied to the infestations of demons ...

I thought it quite well done. Ista is an affecting character. The magic system/religion that Bujold has worked out remains interesting and a good source of plot conflicts. Perhaps Ista's powers seem to scale just a little conveniently to match the needs of the plot -- ever a problem with fantasies. But I enjoyed reading the novel, and I was surprised at several turns (if at other times things worked out a bit routinely). It is another fine story from Bujold.