Book Review: Paladin of Souls

The details:

Title: Paladin of Souls
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 496
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.

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Book Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The details:

Title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Author: Anne Brontë
Pages: 496
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1848)
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

After reading Jane Eyre as a teenager, I quickly moved on to Wuthering Heights and Villette. But I felt forewarned, by the introduction writers of her sisters’ books, against Anne. She was the less talented little sister. There seemed to be a cacophony of voices telling me not to waste my time reading Anne. Charlotte and Emily were assigned reading at school. Anne was simply Anne, the other Brontë sister. And so, with that reasoning, I avoided The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for many years, until I found a book called The Madwoman Upstairs, which I read and reviewed in October. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was such an important part of The Madwoman Upstairs that I stopped, held my place with a bookmark, and instead picked up the book by Anne Brontë from the library.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall felt like a mixture between Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, with all of the passion and violence of the former and the feminist slant and intelligent heroine of the latter. It has a complex structure–a diary inside a letter inside a novel–beginning with our first narrator, Gilbert Markham, writing a letter to his brother-in-law to tell a story about his past. He recalls his younger days, flirting with the vicar’s daughter whom he knows wants to marry him, though he only thinks about it half-seriously. When a young widow named Helen Graham moves into the nearby Wildfell Hall with her young son, the town speculates about her past. Despite her chilly initial reception of him, Gilbert gradually wins Helen over, taking long walks with her and her son and asking about her painting. They fall in love, even though Helen remains distant and evasive about her past.

But gossip begins to circulate about Helen and Gilbert’s friend and Helen’s landlord, Mr. Lawrence. Angry and jealous, Gilbert confronts Lawrence and seriously injures him. When Gilbert accuses Helen of being in love with Lawrence, she gives Gilbert her diary to explain the truth about her past. Anne was criticized for her stark depiction of Helen’s alcoholic first husband, his extramarital affairs, his emotional abuse of Helen, and her eventual escape. In a preface to the second edition, Anne explained:

I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.

She had a right to be proud of her final novel. Helen is as independent and strong as Charlotte’s heroine Jane Eyre. The novel is as passionate as Wuthering Heights (and with more likable characters). I adored this book and wish that Anne Brontë had lived long enough to write more novels.