Paladin of Souls - Better than it Sounds
A forty-year old widow goes on a holy pilgrimage in a fantasy analogue of Medieval Europe. She finds love and saves the world. It sounds lame, but that's the gimmick. This is a fantasy epic masquerading as a fantasy-romance. This book makes me wonder how I could ever stand reading romance novels with barely legal ingenues. Ista is so intelligent, so wounded, so strong, so multi-faceted, so real, that I feel like I can actually learn something by reading her story. Bujold creates a realistically flawed heroine, but avoids the Idiot Ball, mostly by putting Ista's mistakes into her backstory. At twenty-two, she tried and failed to save the world. It was left to her daughter (in The Curse of Chalion) to do it instead. This failure has scarred our protagonist. It broke her, really. But now we see Ista drag herself up from the mire of disappointment and god-ridden madness to become...a lot more than just a dowager old maid. She rediscovers her physical strength, her personal authority, her god-given power and—at long last—her sexuality. The one negative critique I have will be familiar to Bujold fans. Her novels are best read in order. If you haven't read the preceding books you will still be able to grasp the plot, but there will be many obscure references to events of prior novels that will be mentioned but not explained. They are rather like HUGELY IMPORTANT Noodle Incidents. All of the characters are great; again, typically, Bujold has a whole stable of Ensemble Darkhorses. But my favorite by far is The Bastard. He's pretty laid back for a god. You can curse him and he just laughs at you, and drags you along into his disasters-that-end-up-saving-the-world anyway. He is very much a Trickster Mentor, but when Ista looked into his eyes and sees unfathomable depths, facets folding in upon themselves in incomprehensible geometries, I got goosebumps. The Bastard is Ista's patron god, but he makes her Earn Her Happy Ending, and the end is far from "they lived Happily Ever After." In a kind of documentary-ish way, Ista continues even bigger adventures, but the novel just happens to end. Highly recommended!
Reread it. You won't be sorry.
Bujold has—as she would put it—the virtues of her vices. She is so obsessively dedicated to consistent world-building, minute character development and
subverting eviscerating cliched fantasy tropes that it is sometimes a little difficult for a first-timer to digest all of the extremely (deliberately?) subtle nuances of character and setting. A great deal is lost to a "skimmer" like me, who really just wants to know what happens next.
However...re-read any book by LMB and she will reward you. Suddenly that glance between characters, an unfinished sentence, a suspicious passerby—becomes meaningful in the context of the finished book. Like verbal needlepoint, these isolated stitches seem to have little effect, but viewed from the apex of the story, they resolve themselves into a clever word-picture. Furthermore, they reinforce the fabric of the story, making it stronger and more durable with each retread.
Human nature being what it is, we expect to root for the dashing young man and the beautiful young woman. LMB has a way of making you root for the chubby matron, the cowardly ex-slave, the dowdy old widow, the fat licentious priest... and at some point, maybe without realizing it, you will come to see these characters as valuable and beautiful, and just as worthy of their story—and your attention—as any sword-swinging epic hero.