Title: Paladin of Souls
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble
To slightly misquote Wuthering Heights, whatever our souls are made of, this book’s and mine are, unfortunately, not the same. I chose to read Paladin of Souls because of the unique premise: a quest novel featuring a middle-aged heroine named Ista. I don’t usually read fantasy novels, so, rather than being interested in the plot, I had to lean rather heavily on characterization to make it through. If I hadn’t cared at all about the characters, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to finish.
First, the positives. Bujold is an excellent writer. The characters were mostly complex and interesting. The story begins with Ista contemplating her future. Her daughter is married, her husband is dead, and now she is alone in her castle. She longs to have an adventure. For many years, she had been suffering from what was thought to be madness and was locked in a room. As the book opens, she has recovered but is still treated as a liability by those around her. She tries to run away only to realize that she doesn’t know how to do anything and feels as if she is too old to learn. Deciding to set off on a pilgrimage to various shrines around her country, she chooses her own companions rather than those who already know her and have preconceived ideas of how she should act.
In theory, this has potential. However, the change comes too easily. The heroine goes from lamenting her inability to cope with life to somehow being a leader, someone whom other characters turn to in a crisis, without much effort on her part. Perhaps it was buried deep inside her all along, but it seemed as if there was very little growth in between. One moment, Ista is panicking and wondering how she can change. The next, she is competently organizing a pilgrimage on her own terms and calmly sorting out other people’s problems. She rarely struggles, and, in a coming-of-age story (even if it is about a middle-aged woman), that is a problem. I like it when characters figure out how to manage their lives, but it doesn’t make for a good story if they don’t have to work that hard to figure it out.
I’ve read a lot of good things about Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing, so I was disappointed with this novel. Perhaps I started at the wrong place or in the wrong series. This one didn’t grip me, and I probably won’t give her writing another chance until my current reading list is much, much shorter.