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John H. Stevens Reviews PALADIN OF SOULS by Lois McMaster Bujold


When I first read this novel shortly after its publication in 2005, I found it entertaining and well-written. It felt slow in places but the presence of gritty emotion held my interest. Tragedy, regret, and bitterness were the notes of the novel’s early tone, and I found that absorbing because the story was not about these things happening, but rather about dealing with them. I picked it up again a few years later and found a bit more in it, a few lessons for myself as I struggled with personal tragedies of my own. Re-reading it now, it is more fascinating for its examination of recovery through the discovery of purpose and the production of self in that process.

The story of the Dowager Royina Ista’s pilgrimage and the adventures that follow has some of the hallmarks of the “typical” secondary-world fantasy, but they are told from a third-person limited perspective whose goal is to give us access to Ista’s interior life. She is not a witness showing us an unfamiliar world or a newly-arrived stranger, she is a very particular person in that world, and looking through her eyes we see into its nuances and emotional resonances. The story very much serves the character, gives us context and milieu to more richly encounter and understand Ista’s life and thoughts.

This makes the book a character study, but not an introspective or narcissistic one. It is not about psychology per se; rather, it is about the interplay between lived experience and Ista’s sense of being-in-the-world. The emphasis is not on her structures of thought, but on the urges and decisions that arise from the stimulus of experience and how it provokes reflection and action together. When Ista takes an unannounced walk at the novel’s beginning it creates problems and opportunities for her. A simple act ends up having several layers of meaning and significance. We learn about Ista and about her world as a result, and can discern how a person is made by and makes the world simultaneously.

This is a dynamic that many fantasy stories exhibit, intentionally or not. But in Paladin of Souls this is central to the novel. The contrasts that emerged from the story reinforced this; Ista’s pilgrimage versus that of the folks she meets early in the novel; her faith versus dy Cabon’s; fate versus destiny; and self-possession as others try to define you. Ista’s journey is one of finding your place in yourself, of needing to accept the facets of experience and reflection that constitute you, and forging a renewed sense of personhood out of that. One could say this is Ista’s journey of self-discovery, but this is really about the steps one must take after self-discovery. Ista’s sense of herself not only develops, but becomes active. She comes to a new understanding of her agency and purpose in life.

Bujold is adept at tacking between personal issues and larger concerns, and it is this tacking that Ista spends the novel honing.. Ista has a role that she is supposed to play, but she discovers that she has the power to deal with a threat the world, which demands that she creates a new role for herself. She is not a Chosen One, but a Choosing One, taking an active role powered by her own determination. Bujold demonstrates that the path to saving oneself merges with the path to saving the world.


John H. Stevens is an author and bookseller in Ithaca, NY.

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Categories: Book Reviews

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