Aug 28 2009 2:38pm

Martial art fantasy: C.J. Cherryh’s The Paladin

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.

This article is part of C. J. Cherryh Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
j p
1. sps49
I read this in '88, and don't remember it well. I have to dig it up, now that you've reminded me!
TW Grace
2. TWGrace
I prefer the original cover, it definitely looked oriental to me.
Nadine Pedersen
3. Alyssum
I really like this book. I'd better reread it soon. I do, however, prefer the original cover also.

Ken Walton
4. carandol
I was just thinking the other day it was time I reread this. It's also available as an ebook here for the princely sum of $5!
5. SmokeKodiak
One of my favorite books. I have read it about four times in the last twenty years. Thanks for reminding me about it, I think it is time for a re-read.
Clifton Royston
6. CliftonR
This is one of my standby comfort reading books too.

I was just thinking last night that I'd like to see you do this one: I've been starting to read the whole atevi series, beginning with a re-read of Foreigner, Invader, and Inheritor, and was bluntly reminded of how a Cherryh hero typically spends all or most of the story depressed, confused, overwhelmed, outmatched, and often in physical pain.

The Paladin is a complete exception to that. FWIW, I always think of the weapons and fighting training in the book as Japanese, because it fits so well into the style of Japanese stories about martial arts teachers and students, although the empire is so clearly based on China. And I have to say one of the things I love the most about the book is how the reaction the master gets when he rejects his wannabe student is so totally different from what he expected.

I might shelve the atevi series re-read temporarily and re-read this; my arthritis just kicked into high gear again and I need some comfort reading.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
CliftonR: Much as I love the atevi books, I can never read Foreigner when I'm ill. Ilisidi's tea is just too much for me. There's a review on the British edition of Rimrunners that says "never a dull moment and rarely a safe one" and that really goes for most of Cherryh. The Paladin has a number of safe moments, not enough to make it dull, but enough to make it considerably less breathless than other Cherryh.
Liza .
8. aedifica
Jo, would you recommend this as a good Cherryh book to start with? I haven't read anything of hers yet, but I'm thinking I'd probably enjoy her books based on how glowingly you talk about them (since you like so many of the same books I do)--but the one book of hers that I started, I just couldn't get into.
Clifton Royston
9. CliftonR
Jo: I made it through Invader fine, it was Foreigner which was getting to me - the too-vivid depiction of the nagging pain and exhaustion from the broken shoulder was I think getting a little too close to home.

I devoured Paladin this weekend - it was exactly, exactly what I needed. Spoiler: my other favorite aspect of the book is ubj bapr gurl yrnir gur zbhagnva, Fubxn'f bar ovt jubccre bs n yvr fabjonyyf, naq rirelguvat gung gurl qb rira nppvqragnyyl gheaf vagb na bzra va gur choyvp'f rlrf - qentba genpxf va gur evpr cnqqvrf!

aedifica: Speaking for myself, I'd say it's a great introduction to Cherryh. Two others I particularly love which may also be gentler introductions to her writing are Serpent's Reach and Forty Thousand in Gehenna, both set in her "Company" universe. I'm curious - which book were you having trouble connecting with, if you remember? There are some which just don't click for me.
Liza .
10. aedifica
CliftonR @ 9: Thanks for the suggestions! I don't remember the title, but whatever it was, I picked it because I had a free ebook of it. The book started with a meeting, and I was having trouble keeping track of who was who and hadn't been shown why I should care. It seemed like something that might not be a problem if I already knew and liked her style, but the book wasn't a good one to start on.
11. Dreamwolf
9 CliftonR
Its a nice trick to hide spoilers with ROT13 but don't you think you should mention that?

Anyway, I did understand and I found this simple page:

just paste any text and click.
Clifton Royston
12. CliftonR
Dreamwolf: Sorry about that! It's the convention on another site where I frequently discuss SF, and commonly on Usenet. It slipped my mind that not everybody knows the convention, so thank you for clarifying and providing the link.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Aedifica: I think you'd like it. I also think you'd like Rimmrunners and Pride of Chanur which are other good places to start with Cherryh.
14. Spearmint
I'd say start with Pride of Chanur. The other three books people have recommended are all incredibly bleak even for Cherryh, which I suppose is a good place to start in a "begin as you mean to go on" sense, but possibly not in a "read something that will lure you further into Cherryh's oeuvre" sense.

Whereas the Chanur books have likable protagonists, fast action and cool aliens, and you don't find out about any institutionalized rape until the fifth book. (This is incredibly upbeat, coming from Cherryh.) The Chanur books are also the only ones that contain a good explanation of how FTL works in that universe, IMO, which will be helpful for understanding anything else set in the Alliance/Universe.

Rimrunners is a better novel and Gehenna and Serpent's Reach are more intellectual, but unless you're hungry for something dark, Chanur is the place to start.

(And don't start with Foreigner, if whatever meeting you read bored you. Foreigner is nothing but meetings. Sometimes people get shot at on their way to a meeting or poisoned during the meeting, but the basic goal of most Foreigner books is the successful completion of meetings.)
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
Clifton: Now I've read your spoiler, yes, that's brilliant. And the way she reacts, immediately, and then later.
Liza .
17. aedifica
...and I now have The Paladin, because I remembered to look for it when I stopped by Uncle Hugo's to get Seanan McGuire's new book Rosemary and Rue. I hope and expect I'll enjoy both books! (I also bought a copy of Wrede & Stevermer's The Mislaid Magician, because I realized I hadn't actually read it yet.)
Jo Walton
18. bluejo
Aedifica: What a great selection of books! That gives me an idea for a post.
Matthew Brown
19. morven
Yes, I read this a long time ago now and I loved it. The cover I read it first with was the second one shown at LibraryThing (, the one with Taizu head-and-shoulders holding a big sword with Shoka smaller on a horse in the bottom left corner.

I liked that cover because the artist had clearly read the book and taken in details. I'm not so sure about the sword, but the rest of Taizu looks right, down to her scar and the red leather strip Shoka braids into her hair, when they set out, telling her a warrior should always have a little flash, a little flair -- it shows confidence and gives an enemy pause.

And yes, it's time to re-read it, again.
20. bethmitcham
aedifica: My favorite introduction to Cherryh is Cuckoo's Egg. But this one is also a good sense of style and tone.
21. Hapalochlaena
I'd also recommend Cherryh's Merchanter's Luck, a standalone novel set in the the Union-Alliance universe.
Matthew Brown
22. morven
Well, I just did reread The Paladin, and was especially struck by comparisons to the Morgaine series, the fourth novel of which, Exiles' Gate, was written in the same year, a fact which I think is significant.

Taizu and Shoka are an interesting counterpoint to Morgaine and Vanye, in which the age and experience dynamic has been flipped, although much of the emotional dynamic remains. Like Vanye, Shoka is an exile; like Morgaine, Taizu is intent on a seemingly impossible mission.

Like Vanye, Shoka is at heart a romantic, a passionate man, and one given to much self-reflection yet able to miss the obvious in front of him. They both have a similar temper, and a similar tendency to over-complicate things.

Like Morgaine, Taizu is emotionally cold on the surface, and not given to trusting. An observer of humanity, but not very social. Wounded by her past yet not asking the remotest bit of pity. Implacably stubborn.

All four, when we first meet them, are essentially walking suicides, too stubborn to give up yet resigned to their deaths. Shoka's death is the slow death of exile, of living only to get one's revenge by still being around. He has no hope. Taizu intends to kill and die. Vanye is resigned to the short life expectancy of the ilin, while Morgaine plans to do her hopeless task until it kills her, which she suspects to be soon.

Shoka, of course, is not Vanye; he's known peace, mastery, adulation, and he has an inner confidence Vanye has never known, battered though it might be. Likewise Taizu is not Morgaine, in her groundedness, her ability to take care of herself in ways Morgaine ignores. Still, it's interesting to think of them as the same pair of souls, essentially, put into different lives and different ages.

Jo mentioned that it's a rarity to have a Cherryh novel that's so positive. It's also a rarity to have one where the viewpoint is of a man who's almost 40, in a society where that's middle age. Yes, some of the others in her science fiction have been that old, but they feel like striplings. Shoka feels authentically what he is, although there's a boyish side to him, repressed during his actual childhood and young adult life, that comes out with Taizu.

One of the big themes of the story is the power of story, the power of legend; it's about the contrast between the legend and the man, and about how the man learns to use the power of story to succeed, although it sickens him at the same time. It's interesting, too, how Taizu ends up being caught up in story and legend herself, and how (without giving too much away) the power of story transmutes her, too.

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