Paladin of Souls  - Lois McMaster Bujold image
Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my LOCUS FANTASY list.

As the Locus Sci-Fi Award winners list treated me so kindly, I figure I’ll trust those same good folk to pick me some stars in their sister-list, the Locus Fantasy Award winners.

While I was predominantly reading my way through every winner of the Locus Sci-Fi award, I decided to sample a few of the equivalent Fantasy winners. I’d already read a good percentage of the 21st century winners (all the Mieville, Gaiman, Pratchett, etc) so I decided to fill in a few of those gaps. I ordered a trio of books: Paladin of Souls (2004 winner), The Privilege of the Sword (2007 winner) and Lavinia (2009 winner). This is my pick of the three – it was a whisker away from getting a four star rating from me.

This is the second book of the Chalion trilogy, but I read it out of order and have only recently gotten around to buying the first in the series (Curse of Chalion). The events of that book are occasionally referred to, but as going-ons from the distant past with no direct bearing on the current plot, so Curse of Chalion is certainly not essential reading to appreciate Paladin of Souls, which stands up just fine on its own.

Bujold takes an unconventional approach to her female lead. I’m casting my mind about for other adult fantasy woks with a female lead and I’ve got Phedre’s Trilogy (young and sexy), Thursday Next (young and smart), Mistborn (young and dangerous), Greywalker (young and sassy), The Privilege of the Sword (young and romantic), Lavinia (young and homely) – what I aint seeing a whole caboodle of is anything comparable to Paladin of Souls (middle-aged and dotty).

That’s not being entirely fair to our heroine here, Ista – she’s far more than just dotty. She’s a complex, intelligent, god-touched (bit mental), bitter and depressed noblewoman, who’s trying to seize control of her cosseted life from her overly-controlling family. She dragoons an independent-minded female horseback courier into being her lady’s maid, collars an obese priest from an inappropriate sect, and then convinces her family to release her on a religious pilgrimage. Magical adventure ensues.

Paladin of Souls is written superbly; likeable characters, some good action scenes, a nice little mystery at the heart of the plot and a solidly constructed and imaginative world, faith and magic system. I’ve become a big fan of Bujold’s work with her Vorkosigan Saga and a lot of the trademark wry wit and quips are here – yet I’ve scored this lower than any of her sci-fi works. Why?

I enjoyed it, no doubt about that, and as I said at the start – it was only a whisker away from a four-star, “I loved it” rating – but I had just a few too many reservations, none of which were individually overwhelming but cumulatively they weighed me down. I found it a bit predictable. While the variations on fantasy tropes were imaginative, none were a revelation. The overall tone felt a bit safe. And, while I can applaud the brave choice of depressed middle-aged heroine, I didn’t ever truly connect with Ista – not like I have done with Miles and Cordelia in her Vorkosigan books.

Paladin of Souls was good enough that I plan to finish the trilogy, but flawed enough that I’m feeling no great urgency to do so imminently.