The Paladin (Baen, 1988) is not like anything else Cherryh has written. It isn’t really fantasy—or it’s fantasy in the same way Swordspoint is, or The Lions of Al-Rassan, it takes place in a fantasy world but there isn’t any magic. It’s also that thing people say they want but often don’t appreciate when they get it, a stand alone fantasy novel. It is complete in one volume.
This is a fantasy world that’s a lot like China. It’s an inland Empire with provinces, people eat rice with chopsticks, they wear Chinese-style armour and people are afraid of bandits and dragons and demons. (You’d never guess this from any of the covers I’ve seen, which are all very European.) It’s the story of two people, the peasant girl Taizu who comes to the legendary Master Saukendar in his solitary mountain exile to learn to fight, and Saukendar himself, who prefers to go by his nickname, Shoka.
They were haunted hills. The villagers of Mon said that, trying to warn the young traveller. They warned of vengeful ghosts who would lead a boy astray, demons which could appear as foxes and owls, dragons who could take human form. Most persuasive in their estimation — the boy’s quest was useless: the master took no students.
It’s a martial arts story. On one level, this kind of story is summed up by the sign I saw a guy displaying on the sidewalk in Tempe: “Rival ninjas killed my family, need money for extra Kung-fu training”. Taizu’s family have been killed, she wants revenge. The normal way to tell this story would be from her point of view. After the very beginning, Cherryh turns that around and tells it from Shoka’s point of view, the master reluctantly agreeing to train the novice, who is a girl and a peasant in a world where his style of fighting is for gentlemen. Over time, Shoka comes to value Taizu for what she is. Shoka’s voice is wonderful, a man who has become a legend coming to know himself as he comes to know someone else.
On another level, it’s a love story, one of those love stories that’s about people slowly learning to appreciate the other person, where the other person is uncertain, and where the balance is always shifting. (It has more than one thing in common with Swordspoint.) The tension between them is almost like another character. Shoka starts off thinking of Taizu as an example of a category and comes to see her as unique, in coming to care for her he comes to care for the world again.
I’m a sucker for books about military training, and the training in this feels absolutely authentic. Cherryh doesn’t talk about specifics, she talks about building up strength and about patterns. You can almost see it, and yet she doesn’t describe it in detail much at all. It’s impressive. She also builds up a very real picture of life on the mountain, hunting, cooking rice, putting hot compresses on bruises, holing up for the winter. All the while there’s the background of Shoka’s past and Taizu’s, the empire which has shaped them both and which they have left, though they can’t ever really leave it behind.
I like the way this is a version of China. It isn’t trying to say it is China, it isn’t trying to make a western reader feel they know anything about the real history of the real place, but it’s using the details and the context and the kind of story and doing something interesting with that. Cherryh has clearly done her homework, as you’d expect.
I don’t want to get into spoilers, but one of the best things about this story, and the thing least characteristic of Cherryh, is that it is overall so positive. This is a comfort read for me, I always find it cheering, and I’m always sorry to come to the end of it.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.