Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion was for me one of those perfectly plotted novels. Characters, scenes, and situations are introduced at proper moments, the pieces shift and evolve in natural ways, characters retained enough realism to suspend disbelief, and the whole story reaches a climax that is satisfying, organic, and yet surprising in a way that puts a bow on the whole package. Not precisely a once in a lifetime novel, I nevertheless went into the follow up novel, Paladin of Souls (2003) with tempered expectations. It’s good I did.
Paladin of Souls is an off-shoot from Curse of Chalion, not a sequel. Taking Ista, Iselle’s mother from Chalion), it follows her on what begins as a religious pilgrimage, but becomes a journey like she never expected. Longing to escape the stifling of court formality, Ista organizes an incognito trip to the temple of her god, the Bastard. She invites a free-spirited courier named Liss and a priest to be her companions, and sets out on the road. The group do not get far, however, before disaster strikes. Plans cut off at the knees, Ista finds herself at Castle Porifors and the heart of a uncanny mystery. Dark magic straining at the edges of their world, Ista must trust her own dark powers and instincts to help those who helped her.
Paladin of Souls is a satisfying if not loose novel. It takes its sweet time gathering momentum, the real story only seeming to start once Ista arrives at Castle Porifors. But the development and resolution of the quandary she encounters there is the stuff of high fantasy that readers who like the sub-genre read it for. Compared to Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls is a more straight-forward story. Given the manner in which Curse is not, however, will keep readers guessing and second-guessing various characters intentions and ultimate place in the narrative.
If there are criticisms of Paladin, one would be the aforementioned meandrous path of the narrative. Not a tight, focused story, Bujold doesn’t always watch where her feet are landing, the footprints sometimes over the lines. The introduction and conclusion the biggest perpetrators, these parts of the narrative could do with a bit of clipping and pruning, not to mention various points in the body. A second criticism would be the occasionally pretentious tone. For the majority, Bujold does an excellent job maintaining what, for lack of a better term, might be called “high fantasy diction”, i.e. a sense of formality that belies—belies, get it?—the characters and world of classic Arthurian fantasy. But there are certainly moments it goes over the top. I rolled my eyes a few times reading a character wax poetic in conversation, the tone unnatural almost to the point of breaking the fourth wall.
In the end, Paladin of Souls is a good follow up to Curse of Chalion worth a late night read. Bujold may occasionally dip a little too deep into Shakespearian waters, but overall the voice and tone do an excellent job telling a classic high fantasy tale of demons and black magic and the good knights and queens who overcome them. Bujold has padded this novel out a little more than Chalion with sections of text that are only loosely relevant, and I would say the story’s evolution and climax are not as vibrant and unanticipated. But overall fans of Bujold or Chalion will find no disservice.