I've been a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold since I was entranced by her Miles Vorkosigan series a couple of years ago. She has an interesting way of telling a story, combining fascinating characters with the ability to write action when the story calls for it. I was sure that she could write fantasy as well, and she proved it with The Curse of Chalion. Now, she has written a sequel of sorts, called Paladin of Souls. And, once again, she hits the perfect mix.
Ista dy Baocia, mother of the Royina (queen) of Chalion and her new husband, has had a life filled with turmoil. The curse that followed the family she married into (and bore two children into) has now been lifted, but she is still seen as slightly insane. During the curse, she could see demons and sometimes the five gods themselves, but nobody believed her, thinking it the effect of the curse. Even now they watch over her to make sure she doesn't throw herself off the battlements to her death. She feels stifled there, with her son dead, her daughter off helping to rule the land, and everybody else watching her non-stop. She decides to use her position as mother of the Royina to go on a pilgrimage around the land, visiting holy sites and ostensibly praying for a grandson. Unofficially, of course, she just wants to get away from everyone and, more importantly, her memories.
With a small retinue she sets out, and she discovers that others who have come with her have their own reasons for coming. Her party stumbles upon a band of Jokonans, soldiers from the north country, and are captured. With rescue comes mystery, as the dashing figure that hauls her up on his horse is not what he appears to be. Ista must figure out the secret in Castle Porifors and what the family is hiding. With her god-touched powers returning, she must also decide if she is going to be the true Paladin of Souls and do the gods' work.
Paladin of Souls is a sequel only in the sense that the events in the book take place after the previous book. Ista was the mother of two of the main characters in The Curse of Chalion, and she didn't figure that prominently in it. Bujold takes her, a relatively undeveloped character except where the curse was concerned, and gives her a living vibrancy. The reader can see why she went mad before, and why she is still seen as slightly insane. But we can also see the inner workings of her mind, why she is like this and how she can sometimes use it to her benefit. When one is touched by the gods, one is not unaffected. Ista is in her 40s, most of her family dead and her daughter off ruling the kingdom, and she's bored. She's also one of the only people who knows the whole truth of what happened, and what lengths her family took to try and remove the curse. The entire book is told from her viewpoint, so the reader also gets to see her reaction to the events and the people around her.
Ista's not the only wonderful character, though. All of the characters in the book are three-dimensional, unless the book doesn't call for them to be. There's Liss, the messenger girl who Ista enlists to be her traveling maid (mainly because Liss doesn't treat her like an invalid who will kill herself the first chance she gets). She mixes with everybody, demonstrating how uncomfortable she is with the trappings of a royal court but willing to do anything for Ista. Her two soldiers-at-arms, Forda and Foix, are loyal to a fault, but also men with their own emotions. Bujold makes great use of them as well, giving Foix a lot to do that a normal man-at-arms wouldn't get. Bujold's great strength has always been her characterization, and it's this skill that makes even the slower parts of the narrative (there are a few sequences that seem to go on forever) interesting in themselves.
Bujold slowly unfurls the plot as she goes along. Just when the reader thinks it's going one direction, it suddenly turns and goes somewhere else. It starts out as a story of redemption for Ista, and while that ultimately is the point of the story, it redeems some of the other characters as well. The fact that we care about these characters only adds to the strength. Bujold keeps the story flowing, with only the aforementioned slow parts bringing it down just a little. A couple of Ista's conversations with the Bastard (one of the five gods) drag a little bit at times, but the Bastard is such an interesting character that it's easy to forgive.
While the book is character- rather than action-driven, there are some great sequences that show Bujold can handle fast-paced action as well. Everything is vividly described, and while there is a lot of blood flowing at times, none of it is too grotesque. There may be missing limbs, but nothing too outrageous. One thing I thought was a little bit less well-done was the final battle. It's a bit confusing at times, with events moving from the physical plane to inside Ista's head and then back again. Overall, however, Bujold does a great job, immersing the reader in the book and never letting go.
The writing style is simply gorgeous. I read the book very slowly because I was just reveling in it. She captures the gentle humor of the characters along with the metaphysical aspect of the plot, making it almost lyrical. Her prose has matured since she started with Shards of Honor. Don't race through Paladin of Souls to get to the finish line; savor it. Take your time and lose yourself.
I haven't read a bad Bujold book yet (there have been a couple sub-par books, but that's only when compared with her other stuff). This is yet another winner. It also almost demands a sequel (and she is writing another Chalion book), but perhaps she'll do what she did this time and go off on another tangent. Wherever Bujold leads, I'll be right there waiting.