Mar 21 2011 12:03pm

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.

John Ginsberg-Stevens
1. eruditeogre
In some ways I liked Paladin of Souls more than The Curse of Chalion, although I think Chalion is the better book. The great thing about Paladin is that it inculcates a real fondness and attachment to Ista, empathy for all characters, major and minor, and wonderfully inverts some of the tropes of most fantasy novels. Ista finding a new purpose in life was a very refreshing story to read and shaped the story into something both more human and more existential.
Ursula L
2. Ursula
I think it is Illvin's ordinary-ness that makes him attractive to Ista.

Throughout her life, she was raised to expect that she'd marry someone chosen for her, and that she would be dependant on her chosen spouse, whom she was expected to love even if he didn't love her back.

Illvin is ordinary, and more importantly, he starts out as helpless, dependant on Ista to save and protect him from the story's supernatural threats. He loves her before she's willing to admit she loves him. While Ista was offered to her first husband, and he could choose whether, when and how their relationship would take place, Illvin is offered to and offers himself to Ista, and she can choose.

Much of Ista's journey in Paladin is about her appetites (re)awakening and Ista gaining the ability and power to control and use her appetites. It starts with her regaining her appetite for food at the beginning of her journey, and reconnecting with her body through the rigors and trials of the journey and the attacks on her party. She eats demons. And she gets a man who will both satisfy her reawakened sexual appetite and who will encourage and support her appetites for travel, for exciting experiences, and for finding more demons to consume.

A man who is a hero to match Ista would have his own quest, and would not be willing to set it aside to follow her quest. Ista gets the man she needs and deserves - not one who will compete with her, or one who will coddle her, but one who will follow her and support her in her holy task.

It's a Sleeping Beauty story, from the POV of Ista as Prince Charming.
Jeff R.
3. Jeff R.
Sleeping Beauty? Interesting. To me, that got lost underneath the more obvious reworkings of The Two Corsican Brothers going on here.
Melita Kennedy
4. melita
I just re-read these books myself. I didn't get the impression that Illvin is ordinary. He's number 2 after Arhys, but seems less only because Arhys is so bright. Illvin is master swordsman, spy, expert rider, diplomat. However, we just get glimpses of this because he's usually comatose! Anyway, I'd prefer him over Arhys any day.
Pamela Adams
5. PamAdams
Plus, he gives hand massages- without being asked!

I love Lissa- the handmaiden who'd rather be riding a horse. I also love how Cazaril sends her Ferd and Foix to assist her- the two brothers were great in Chalion, but Foix definitely comes into his own here.
Ursula L
6. Ursula
The Corsican Brothers may be what is going on between Arhys and Illvan. But this isn't their story, it is Ista's story. And that's a side-plot compared to what Ista is going through. Focusing too much on the dynamic between the brothers both erases Ista from the story (as women are too often erased from their own stories) and leads to missing the point.

Ista is very conscious of the Sleeping Beauty story, to the point of trying to restore both Illvan and Arhys with a kiss. Illvan is there for her, to resuce if she can.
Natalie Luhrs
7. eilatan
This is my very favorite book. And I came over here to say what Ursula did in #2--it's Illvin's relative ordinary-ness which makes him so attractive to Ista.

I really like the fact that the romance isn't a grand sweeping sort of romance and that it's not the centerpiece of the book. It's an important part of Ista's life, but it doesn't define her.
Jeff R.
8. Lynnet1
I read Paladin as perhaps the quintessential coming of age story, but instead of coming to early adulthood, she's coming into her role as a responsible middle-aged adult.

In one of his books Orson Scott Card discusses why the protagonists of so many novels are teenagers. The reason, he says, is that teenagers are relatively free. Unlike adults, they don't have obligations; they don't have things tying them down. Ista begins Paladin as a teenager and ends it as the middle aged woman that she actually is.

Ista at the beginning of the book is just coming out of the madness that clouded her mind for 20 years. For that time she's been cared for by her family in her ancestral home. The end of her madness coincides with her daughter becoming Royina, so that as the madness lifts she finds herself in a position where she has no responsibilities. Because she was mad during her children's formative years, she hasn't borne any responsibility for the past 20 years. So in that sense she's a teenager. In a lot of ways, she acts like it. She begins the book by running away on a whim- sending her attendant away and slipping out the gate with no foresight or thought. Even when she gets the idea to go on her pilgramage, she is unapologetic in seeing it as a vacation from the one responsibility that she does have- behaving in accordance with how a dowager royina should behave.

As the book goes on Ista develops a sense of responsibility. First for the people in her party- her guard, priest, and handmaiden. The first time we really see this is at the fair, where Ista wanders the fair, supporting her guards as they compete, congratulating them when they win and consoling them as they lose. We would not have seen that from the Ista of the opening chapters. The attack by the Jokonans is a major step in Ista's growth. She has to make sure that her priest and demon possessed guard are safe, protect the rest of her men, and protect her own identity so that she can't be used against her daughter in the war. The climax of the book is when she accepts her spiritual responsibilities after spending most of the book (understandably) rejecting them.

Although I like Illvan, one of the things that has always bothered me about the Illvan/Ista love story is that at the end both Illvan and Ista have responsibilities that should pull them in opposite directions. It always bothered me that LMB sweeps that conflict under the rug by giving them a war that conveniently keeps them together. I felt like she avoided a perfect opportunity to deal with the issue of separate careers that so many modern couples struggle with and that is virtually ignored in most genre fiction.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Ursula: I think you're right, I just don't find him a very rewarding rewarsd, if you see what I mean.
Rob Munnelly
10. RobMRobM
I enjoyed Paladin but Chalion resonated with me more. I really like the concept of a 40-plus year old woman as a heroine (being of that vintage myself, get off my lawn vibes have increasing appeal for me) and I like Ista's development of competence and assurance throughout (telling Lissa her role as a good helper to a lady is to move away from the door so she can have whoopie with her guy in relative privacy is pretty funny) but her journey didn't move me in the same way as Caz's did.

Ursula L
11. Ursula
Now I'm trying to figure out how Illvan could be a more rewarding-reward, without undermining him being exactly what Ista needs.
john mullen
12. johntheirishmongol
I cannot argue which one is better, I just loved them both. I thought this went in a totally unexpected direction, and Ista turned out to be an incredibly interesting character in terms of growth and change. LMB is an amazing writer, one that seems better every time you read her.
Jeff R.
13. OtterB
Lynnet1 says
Even when she gets the idea to go on her pilgramage, she is unapologetic in seeing it as a vacation from the one responsibility that she does have- behaving in accordance with how a dowager royina should behave.

I disagree that this is Ista dodging responsibility. It's true that we see her growing into her responsibilities to her guards and her attendants. But I think the expectations she escapes are a trap, not a responsibility she should accept. She's been passive for a long time, doubting herself, with some justification. We see her learn to value what she thinks she should do (or what the gods call her to do) more than what others expect her to do. We see her learn to trust herself again, and we see her grow into a capability beyond anything she had as a young bride to the powerful roya.

And we see Illvin, who sees the real Ista, the capable Ista, and loves her.
Jeff R.
14. jere7my
I enjoyed PoS quite a bit, but I was troubled that Ista's reponse to witnessing someone being sexually molested was to go ahead and molest him a little more. Granted, all she did was peek at his goodies and kiss him, but that's a pretty awful response to watching someone being fondled in their sleep.
Jeff R.
15. Colona
I've really enjoyed reading Jo Walton's review and all the comments. I'd add that Bujold creates Illvin off Arhys's character: Arhys is legit, perfect soldier/leader/lord, irresistably sexy (has soap), and more. Illvin (love that name) does not. Of course, Arhys is dead while Illvin is alive. Anyway, I've always like romantic leads who are more suggested by their authors than delineated. I like authors (like Shakespeare) whose characters come alive through their reflections from/on others.

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