Middle aged saint: Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Paladin of Souls

I reread The Curse of Chalion (post) and I enjoyed it so much that I went straight on and re-read the other two books. I’ve written about Paladin of Souls before (post) but I have some new things I want to say about it.

There are lots and lots of books about young people escaping from the life that is laid down for them and finding themselves and their new life. There are hero journeys and heroine journeys, but they all tend to be about coming of age. Paladin of Souls is one of the very few books which has a middle aged woman run away and find herself. Ista is a retired queen. She’s been mad for years. She’s a minor character in The Curse of Chalion, but this is her book. It begins with her wanting something, when it has been a long time since she wanted anything. She wants the road, and she heads off down it without a pocket handkerchief like Bilbo. Her attendants think she’s mad and go after her to bring her back, and it is a mad thing to do, but it leads to everything that follows.

The Curse of Chalion is a kingdom scale book, this one is smaller and closer in. Ista was a royina, a queen, but she starts off with no power and no prospects. The power she finds is divine, rather than political. She does foil an invasion, but it’s almost by the way. It starts extremely small scale, with a pilgrimage that’s undertaken as a holiday, and then the pilgrimage becomes real. The really interesting thing here is what Bujold is doing with the theology, the real gods, and how they can or cannot interfere in the world. So in that sense this isn’t a small scale story at all—Ista becomes a saint who can eat demons.

It’s easy to miss how much The Curse of Chalion is the Daughter’s book when you read it in isolation. Nobody could miss how much this is the Bastard’s book. He’s all through it. And once you’ve seen that, you can see how much Cazaril’s story is the Daughter’s, and what kind of series this is. It’s quite unusual to structure something this way. A number of the important characters here and minor characters there, and we hear about the major characters of that book, all doing splendidly.

The story starts slowly with the pilgrimage, and it gathers speed once we meet Arhys, and I think it gains a lot from that slow start easing us into everything. We find out a lot about demons and the way everything works. One of the things that really impresses me is how the magic is used during the siege—to break all the ceramics, including the water tanks, to break the strings of the bows, to make the food rot, and wounds rot and fires break out in the stables. It’s much more horrible than lightning bolts and fireballs, and so inexorable and hard to fight against. Bujold has always been great at logistics, and this is another example of how important this is.

One thing that slightly disappoints me is the romance—Ista finds True Love and fulfillment in that. She also has a new job, which is great, and people do find love in middle age, and even old age, but it seems almost too ordinary, compared to the rest of the book. I really like Arhys not noticing he’s dead, and Cattilara and the demon being in full agreement about keeping him alive, but I find Illvin Our Love Interest the dullest thing in the book. Most of the minor characters here are terrific, Liss, Foix and Dy Cabon in particular. Illvin’s just ordinary, and his love for Ista and hers for him seem comparatively perfunctory.

Post on The Hallowed Hunt forthcoming shortly.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. 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.

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