Monday, October 31, 2011

2004 Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Fantasy – PALADIN OF SOULS by Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold wins her fourth Hugo in fourteen years (only Heinlein has exceeded this feat), and her second Nebula with this fantasy novel.  I tend to have nigh-impossible standards for High Fantasy (it took awhile for Song of Ice and Fire to win me over, after all)…but I liked this book, and its predecessor, 2001’s Curse of Chalion.  Bujold doesn’t exactly overcome the problems I’ve come to have with most high fantasy novels.  She still focuses on Byzantine political conflicts, leaving the central social issues of her faux-medieval society unexamined, and her prose is still stilted.  But she sidesteps these issues with a more personal focus on a smaller cast and setting, and with the general charm that all of her books seem to exude.

These books introduce the small nation of Chalion, which I imagined along the lines of medieval Spain, I think because of the consonants she uses in names and the many political similarities.  In this world, people believe in a nuclear family of gods – the Father, Mother, Daughter, and Son.  Some people, including most of Chalion, also worship “the Bastard” as a fifth god of social deviance and magic, while Chalion’s enemies see the Bastard as a demonic force outside of the pantheon.  The Curse of Chalion follows former general, and former slave Lupe dy Cazilar as he dabbles in death magic to redeem himself and Chalion’s royal family, who are literally cursed by dark magic, and figuratively cursed with corrupt officials.  I actually liked Curse a bit more than this novel; the plot seemed more focused and the characters more interesting.  It was also nominated for a Hugo, but lost in a much tougher field (that included American Gods, Passage, and Perdido Street Station).

Paladin follows a minor character from the first book, the former queen Ista.  Ista had been inflicted with the curse, and had communicated with the gods.  She also did some rather horrible things to try to remove the curse, and most people considered her mad in her grief.  Now, she’s trying to regain some freedom by going on a pilgrimage, but on her way, she encounters an epidemic of demonic possession and raids from Chalion’s enemies, the Roknari.  She comes to a castle that has its own share of curses and conflicts, and she has to deal with new powers from the gods.

Bujold plays some interesting games with magic and religion here, and it is a well-told story with compelling characters, which I’ve come to expect from her.  We do get a few of the plot contrivances that bothered me in the Vorkosigan series, but they make a lot more sense when divine intervention is in play. I still want more out of fantasy novels than this, but there’s no question that this is a very solid entry in the canon.  The phrase “guilty pleasure” seems unfair to Bujold, because she does offer more depth and better writing than most sf, and yet her novels do bring that phrase to mind, because they are so enjoyable, and so focused on simply telling a clear, entertaining story.

I should note that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was nominated for a Nebula this year.  It’s one of my favorite novels, so I’m kind of bummed that the SFWA panel didn’t go out on a limb and give it the award.  The Hugo nominee line-up is quite a bit weaker, and, though I've only read one other nominee, I imagine that Bujold would've been my choice.

Grade: B

(I’d give Curse of Chalion a B+)


  1. I have the same issue with all of Bujold books, great stories with weak endings. I preferred Curse of Chalion to this novel but both were plagued with the same idiotic happy, fully resolved (for the main character) endings. Don't even get me going on Mirror Dance, what an awful ending in that one. Why she wins these awards is a mystery to me.

  2. Good point. She tends to put her characters through hell, but she does always get to a ridiculously happy ending.