Details: (c) Lois McMaster Bujold 2003; Pub Voyager 2004; ISBN 0-00-713849-0
Verdict: Paladin of souls is enjoyable and romantic, though a little flat.
Reasons for reading it: It's the sequel to The curse of Chalion, which I very much enjoyed. I wouldn't normally read the sequel so soon after the original, but I was excited to play more in this world.
How it came into my hands: Reading both volumes in succession was also helped by the fact that cartesiandaemon kindly lent me both of them!
I found Paladin of souls a little slow to get going. There about a hundred pages of wandering about, establishing character, which is undoubtedly well done, but there's not much action to go with it. After that there is a lot of excitement, but even when there's plenty going on, the story doesn't move forward quite as smartly as it might. In some ways I might have appreciated it more if it hadn't been a sequel to tCoC; the scope of the story is just so much smaller, and that made it frustrating. But taken in isolation the story of Ista escaping from her gilded cage, getting caught up in what seems to be a minor border skirmish and falling in love would have been perfectly appealing.
In the very last section, the story does seem to broaden out and starts to deal with large-scale metaphysical and political implications of the situation. But it's left so late that by this point I'd already emotionally settled into it being a story about Ista's personal development. In fact, a lot of this may be the classic middle of a trilogy problem.
This review is starting to sound a lot more negative than I really mean it to be! PoS did indeed give me a lot of what I wanted, which is more of the fascinating world, this time some glimpses of life for provincial minor nobles and middle class people as well as the royalty featured in CoC. There's more development of the religion, which is still a really cool religion, but I found the treatment of it slightly uneven. There are bits that are wonderful, such as snippets of religious texts which sound convincing (this is rather amazing since it's something that very rarely works well in fantasy religions), and more of the stuff that I appreciated before about a realistic and nuanced portrayal of different attitudes towards religion among different people. Getting more detail about how the Bastard fits into the pantheon is also really cool. But there's less of the clear distinction between religion and magic which I appreciated in PoS, and sometimes it does feel as if a new element of how demonology works is introduced only because it furthers the plot, rather than the mechanisms being consistent. The part that really impressed me was the encounter with the Father of Winter; that I found really powerful and moving, and it conveyed a sense of something close to numinous. But it may be that I'm more primed to appreciate stern father type gods than trickster types.
The characterization is still wonderful. I found Ista ever so slightly annoying, but very sympathetic and human and believable. I have the impression I've seen some approving comments somewhere about Bujold writing middle-aged characters, not just young glamorous ones. It is definitely a bonus to have a strong heroine, without too much self-congratulatory stuff. The setting doesn't assume that gender makes no difference, nor anachronistically applies 21st century gender roles, nor wastes time with a lot of really obvious polemic about how the olden days were omg sexist! That sort of success shouldn't be so rare, but it's nice to have a book where that level just works.
I veered between enjoying the romance and finding it unbearably soppy. And considering that I'm in danger of being a bit soppy about the person who introduced me to the book, that probably means that by most people's standards it's really, really soppy. But I almost felt more warmth for Ista and Illvin than for Cordelia and Aral in Shards of honor. There's a very nice portrayal of the new relationship thing of delighted amazement that you've found eachother, and all the little touches and gestures of a couple starting to fit round eachother. I personally think the book should have ended with the dramatic final confrontation; Ista's vision of the Bastard at that point gives plenty of information about what her happily ever after will look like, and we don't need several chapters describing in detail how she sets up as an intinerant saint and all the appropriate couples get to be soppy about eachother. The final love scene is just too sickly sweet, and doesn't make a strong ending for the book.
Two annoyances, one minor and one more serious: firstly, the use of bastardized Swedish for some of the place names really bugged me, but that's almost certainly just me. I was more seriously annoyed by the constant references to how fat dy Cabon is. He's a fairly major character, and every time he is mentioned or makes a remark, there's some comment about his fatness. Every. Single. Time. It might be that some readers would be caught by surprise that a fat character is actually competent, but by the five hundredth page there is no way this is new to anyone, and raiding a thesaurus for synonyms for "fat" doesn't constitute characterization!
Oh well. The opening scene with the Chaucer pastiche is really cute, I must say.
Oh, and a couple of other book reviews from the past couple of weeks, though I'm still rather behind:
- Diane Duane: So you want to be a wizard
- Matt Ruff: Set this house in order