Bujold, Lois McMaster. Paladin of Souls.

NY: HarperCollins, 2003.

When last we saw the Dowager Royina Ista of Chalion (who’s actually only about forty), she had regained her sanity, the curse over the royal family (and thus over the country) having been removed by Castillar de Cazaril, who has now become Chancellor to Ista’s daughter, the young Royina Iselle and her husband, Royse Bergon of the kingdom next door.

That was near the end of the first volume of this excellent fantasy trilogy. Three years have passed since then and Ista, still tucked safely away in her recently deceased mother’s country estate, is becoming seriously restless. She needs to get out, to travel, to do something other than sitting around with a clutch of handmaids, being protected. A pilgrimage, that’s it! She can go on pilgrimage — where to, exactly, she doesn’t know, or care — and she can insist on the absolute minimum of servitors and guardsmen. Besides, she somehow feels a push from the gods, an idea that she’s supposed to go somewhere and do something. So, anyway, off she goes, with a handful of retainers (including Ferda and Foix from the first book) and it isn’t long before she’s caught up in both the geopolitics of Chalion and a supernatural struggle of major importance.

The first book laid out the basic tenets of a religious system for Ista’s world — a “real” system, because there really are gods in her universe — which I found fascinating. There are the five deities, Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, and the Bastard, each with its own particular interests and attributes. And there are the demons, who opportunistically invade the world of men, enter the first life-form they can find, and make considerable trouble as they attempt to move up the food chain. And there are saints, with assorted powers and gifts. Ista, however, knows something about saints, having been one herself for awhile — nor is she sort of person to be frightened of or cowed by the gods, even when she looks them in the face, as she seems to do regularly. In fact, Ista doesn’t seem to be afraid of anyone or anything.

Her nation’s ancient enemies, the Jokonans, whose Five Princedoms are a continuing threat, are heretics. (Although, according to them, naturally, the people of Chalion are the real heretics.) Moreover, the Jokonans, who invaded from overseas and for centuries ruled Chalion and its neighboring kingdoms (think Spain and the Moors), are preparing to make a bid to regain their lost conquests, and they intend to use a horrific strategy to accomplish their ends. Or one old woman on the other side does, at least.

There’s plenty of blood and sword-swinging here, but also a good deal of carefully worked out sociology and philosophy. Bujold also couldn’t devise a flat character if she tried; her players are multi-dimensional and believable in every sense. And she uses the language in splendid fashion. It might be arguable that she’s even better at this sort of thing than she is at the marvelous space opera of the immensely successful Miles Vorkosigan series.

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