Lois McMaster Bujold is an award-winning author of both science fiction and fantasy. For some reason, her books have dodged my attention. On a recent trip to the library, I decided to pick out one of her best-regarded volumes, Paladin of Souls, which won best novel from the Hugos, Nebulas, and Locus. It’s solidly in the fantasy genre, but I’d rather read a great book than just an ordinary science fiction work.
The main character, Ista, experiences something of a midlife crisis. Her husband and son have died. Her daughter was married off in the prevoius book in this series. It’s time to get out of town, so Ista concocts the guise of a spiritual pilgrimage, gathers a few trusted companions she’s just met, and rides off to adventure. Ista and her party are waylaid by raiders, rescued by a local nobleman, and are invited to enjoy his hospitality behind the walls of what seems to be a rather safe castle. But appearances are deceiving. Her hosts have their own serious issues with murder, political intrigue, and deeply injured persons.
A sense of unease builds up, and about halfway through the novel a shocking revelation confronts Ista, who has figured it out before the reader. For the rest of the book, the forces of sorcery and military might array against Ista, her companions, and her hosts. The plot resolves with logic, well set-up by small clues planted along the way. Good triumphs over evil with a combination of pluck, sacrifice, the eventual emergence of godly assistance, and most of all, through a middle-aged woman who gradually realizes the powers with which she’s been gifted. It’s a good heroic tale, and a satisfying read.
Paladin of Soulsis not a fast read. Ms Bujold spends a lot of time talking Ista and her companions through characterization. When people start getting lost and hurt fairly early in the reading, it’s easy to care about them. For fantasy, there’s a good deal of talking through the ideas–more than average, I would say. It almost seemed Asimovian. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss the thread. If you like fantasy with swordplay and tussles, there’s some of that. But the deepest ideas are developed through an interesting “theology” of five gods. There’s the human struggle, primarily Ista’s, for self-determination, and how she and others seek or resist divine will/interference (or lack thereof).
The essentially pagan family of gods seems to be rather petty and arbitrary, though not quite as badly behaved as in Greek and Roman mythology. They are satisfied to let people find their own way. But they are not above nudging or even taunting mortals to induce desired behavior. Ista is deeply angry with these gods for her troubled life, but they still seek her out and are willing to work with, or in spite of her bitterness. You will note I use small-case “g” to describe these beings. They don’t strike me as objects of faith. Gods who appear to human beings are not a matter of faith, but just more powerful beings.
This book is a very enjoyable read. Nearly excellent, I would say. Its strength is in characterization, a rare skill for a fantasy author. Though slow to unfold, the plotting is sure. The reader travels at the speed of a horse-drawn wagon, but the ride is smooth, the scenery pleasant, and the companions agreeable. If you like fantasy intelligently presented, this book is strongly recommended.