Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. ★★★★
Paladin of Souls is a loose sequel to The Curse of Chalion, an epic fantasy novel. However, both books stand alone, and you don’t really need to have read The Curse of Chalion to read Paladin of Souls, which feels less like epic fantasy in some ways. I guess technically the fate of the kingdom is at stake, but the novel is more centered around its protagonist’s life than court life.
Ista is the widow of a king and the mother of a queen. She’s also spent most of her adult life under the influence of a spell that caused madness. Now that she’s regained control of herself, she wants to define who she is and what she will do with her life. Unfortunately, she can’t do that while stuck in a castle with all her mother’s old friends. So Ista makes a plan. She’ll go on a pilgrimage. Her prim and proper minders can’t object to that, and they have no way of knowing that the not really religious Ista just wants to go traveling. But as Ista hits the road, she discovers that more and more demons have been discovered recently. And then her party begans having its own encounters with demonic forces.
There’s a lot I enjoyed about Paladin of Souls. Bujold is a skilled writer, and I can clearly see why this novel won a Hugo, Nebula, and Locus back in 2004! There’s some action, but it’s not a book I’d call action packed. The only magic comes either from demons or divinities, or sometimes both, as in the case of the god the Bastard. It mainly takes place in rural areas and an out of the way castle, instead of at court. But it still involves demonic possession, and even battles and armies.
Of course, the center of the book is Ista, a heroine I quickly came to love. I really liked that the protagonist of Paladin of Souls was an older woman, since that’s not the sort of protagonist you see in a lot of fantasy novels. I want stories about all sorts of women, or all ages! Ista has a bit of a rebellious spirit, but she also more life experience and wisdom than you find with most young adult protagonists. I loved how she was trying to take charge of her own life and find adventure.
In my review of The Curse of Chalion, I said that my favorite part of the book was the magic. I don’t think that’s entirely true here–I like Ista a ton–but I do find the magical elements fascinating. They definitely are more involved throughout the book than in The Curse of Chalion, where it took them a while to come into play.
Anyway, Paladin of Souls is a really great fantasy novel, and I can see why Bujold is considered one of the premiere authors of the genre. I’d probably even recommend it over The Curse of Chalion, and I’ll have to search out more books by Bujold.