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Literature / The Paladin

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Cover of the first edition

The Paladin is a 1988 stand-alone Low Fantasy novel by C. J. Cherryh, better known for her science fiction. In a land resembling medieval China in some ways and similar-period Japan in others, young pig-keeper Taizu shows up at the door of legendary, exiled swordsman Master Saukendar, seeking martial training so that she can exact revenge on those who killed her family. Saukendar has turned down every hopeful who's ascended his mountain to disturb his exile, but Taizu is determined to be the exception.

Saukendar isn't all he's cracked up to be, and yet he is; a lot of the story is about the inner man, Shoka, versus the outer legend, Saukendar. The story is largely told from his perspective, and we watch as Taizu changes him just as much as he changes her.

Written in the same year as the final volume of the Morgaine Cycle, Exile's Gate, The Paladin has a very similar feel. It takes the same Asian, Samurai-influenced aspects seen in Vanye and applies them to a more Asian world and (unusually for a Cherryh viewpoint character) a more mature man, inverting the age and experience dynamic of the Morgaine series but not so much the emotional one.


Despite the similar name, it has no relations whatsoever to the trope The Paladin, nor to army hero in Have Gun – Will Travel. Also have zero relations to the Videogame Paladins.

This work provides examples of:

  • Action Girl — Taizu, and played quite realistically; she's acknowledged as physically incredibly capable — the best student Shoka could ever hope for — yet he drives home to her again and again how much size, strength and reach count against her, how all someone has to be to be a danger is taller, stronger and half as skilled.
  • Amazon Chaser: Taizu's mentor, Shoka.
  • Archer Archetype — As befits a samurai, Shoka is a highly skilled bowman as well as a sword-master, a skill that proves useful for hunting in his exile. When Taizu shows up on his mountain, she's already skilled with a bow, since bows are weapons permitted to peasants. Her bow is crude and self-made, but her technique is not. Shoka's calm, strategic view of battle fits the trope quite well, and he teaches Taizu to view combat that way too.
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  • Arrows on Fire — employed by Shoka to sow confusion, fear and panic.
  • Arranged Marriage — Shoka's unrequited love Meiya with young Emperor Beijun.
  • Battle Couple — Taizu and Shoka, naturally.
  • Best Served Cold — Taizu's revenge on Lord Gita; she knows she cannot get close as an unskilled peasant girl, so she seeks out the training and experience she needs to have a chance.
  • But Now I Must Gosubverted. Taizu thinks she has to fulfill this trope, but Shoka has other ideas.
  • Chivalrous Pervert — Shoka, with Taizu.
  • Civil War — what Saukendar's return to Chiyaden might spark.
  • Contemptible Cover — some of them; the one shown here and the British paperback edition show properly Asian depictions of Taizu, but on other covers she and Shoka are given a Race Lift, the Unfortunate Implications of which may have as much to do with misinterpreting the title as anything else.
  • Cool Horse — Jiro, Shoka's aging warhorse, who's probably the third most important character in the whole thing. Proud, stubborn, regal, bad-tempered yet soft-hearted. That Jiro accepts Taizu so quickly is foreshadowing for Shoka's more grudging acceptance.
  • Courtly Love — what was between Shoka and Meiya, the Emperor's wife.
  • The Emperor — although Beijun is a pretty pathetic, feckless example. His father better fit the stereotype of Benevolent Emperor, except for his blindness about his son's failings.
  • Expecting Someone Taller — Taizu at first thinks that Shoka is the great Saukendar's servant, rather than the man himself.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture — a combination of China in some ways and Japan in others.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars — Taizu's, vertically downward from one eye down her cheek, is one of the classic "Good" scars, though it's more severe than most and goes all the way down her neck.
  • Gossip Evolution — the process through which the actions of the real man Shoka become the mythic endeavors of the great Saukendar.
  • Imperial China — in Fantasy Counterpart Culture form, although with Japanese influences as well.
  • Low Fantasy — of the "no visible magic" kind. Belief in magic and spirits is common, but we see nothing to suggest that it is any more true here than in our world.
  • Master Swordsman — Shoka, although he's only ever had two students; the feckless young Emperor, and Taizu. Plenty of others have begged to study under him.
  • May–December Romance — at the beginning, Taizu is about sixteen and Shoka is nearly forty.
  • Moment Killer — Bandits.
  • Ninja — as the Emperor's bodyguard, Shoka learned a lot about the tactics of assassins, which he teaches Taizu, and employs himself, no longer feeling bound by propriety after his exile. He disguises them as servants, for instance.
  • Noble Fugitive — Saukendar, who fled, escaped by force of arms, and lives in a lonely exile just outside the Empire's borders.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity — Shoka is good at playing the fool in order to confuse his enemies.
  • Off with His Head! — decapitation is the fate of Ghita, by Shoka and Gitu, by Taizu.
  • Old Master — what Master Saukendar is in legend, at least, although he's not quite forty.
  • Pygmalion Plot — Shoka falls in love with what Taizu becomes, although as much with those parts he did not guide as those he did.
  • Rape as Backstory — The explanation for a lot of Taizu's distrust of Shoka initially, and of men in general, though it's played subtly and she never expects sympathy.
  • Regent for Life — Ghita, who is still Regent in the Emperor's thirtieth year, and who had killed or exiled everyone whose duty it was to ensure the Emperor grew up and took responsibility.
  • Revenge — Taizu's primary motivation, and revenge denied and sublimated is part of Shoka's makeup as well.
  • Samurai — what Shoka effectively is, and the way in which he trains Taizu.
  • Samus Is a Girl — for about a chapter, granted, before Shoka's skilled eye catches the slightly different movement of a girl's skeletal structure.
  • Scars Are Forever — Taizu has a scar running "from cheek to chin to neck and down beneath the grimy collar", as we're told in the prologue. She was attacked on the road from Hua to seek Master Saukendar, who later gives her salve to help it heal and soften the scarred skin. He also, later, teaches her not to hide from others' gaze because of it.
  • Second Love — Taizu is the second woman Shoka has loved; the first was unrequited, with Meiya, who became the Emperor's wife.
  • Snowball Lie — Shoka allows the villagers of Mon to believe that Taizu is a demon and the story spins out of control until everyone in the empire, it seems, has heard the story.
  • Unequal Pairing — Shoka's almost 40 at the beginning of the novel, Taizu is about sixteen, and she's his student, though the relationship doesn't go beyond that until almost two years later.
  • Waif-Fu — so averted; Taizu has to work really hard and build up some serious musculature to be a danger in a fight, and we see every step of the way.
  • Wax On, Wax Off — Taizu's apprenticeship starts off as entirely menial tasks; this is mostly in order to build up her strength and endurance, although Shoka's desire for comfort and looking for excuses to get out of the training promise are part of it.
  • You Killed My Father — though in Taizu's case, it's more "You killed my whole family, village and Lord".

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