I’m a longtime fantasy reader, but I’ve gotten tired of the current crop of twenty year old heroines, the descriptions of their clothes, their vague struggles with boyfriends, and the development of their special powers. Even if coming-into-one’s power storylines are set with werewolves and vampires, a certain uniformity starts to develop. Paladin does something I never expected in an epic fantasy; she’s written a thoughtful coming-of-age story focused on a forty-year old noblewoman who has been fighting her ‘god-touched’ connection for years.
Ista is an interesting, complex female lead that is reaching toward change, even if she isn’t exactly sure how to get there. She’s had emotional scarring in her past, and years of a cursed “madness” coupled with her status as a royal have kept her wrapped in a cocoon. However, she recognizes this and longs for some unspecified alternative. “The dullness of her life, the stalemate of her soul since then was just long habit.” She develops a plan to escape her highly protected life under the guise of a pilgrimage visiting various gods’ shrines. It’s part of the underlying irony that this is Ista’s justification for travel when she secretly hates the gods and their interference in her life.
While some events happen to her in the beginning, she begins to take more authority over her choices and decisions little by little, until it is partly her energy and leadership that (view spoiler) Her entourage is an interesting group as well. Liss, a courier pressed into service as a lady’s maid, made me laugh when they first tried to work out how to manage Ista’s hair. “You do your own, presumably. What do you do with it?” “Well, I put it in a braid…” “Do you do the horses?” “Oh yes, my lady. Snail braids, and dressed with ribbons…” It’s a charming little snippet of dialogue that shows Ista’s willingness to step outside her traditional boundaries.
Bujold has a very unexpected way of dealing with demons, god-possession and life-energy. Part of Ista’s struggles are a personal and theological grudge against the deities of her world from events that happened during her early marriage. Even within the framework of the system Bujold has created, she manages to take the spiritual angles of the magic and demon system to unexpected places. (view spoiler) A demon-ridden woman, initially set up to be a negative and opposing force, develops into a tragic figure by the end of the story.
Bujold’s writing is a perfect mix of description and action. I enjoyed her imagery and use of language. The subtle ways she shows us Ista’s confinement at court; the pacing, bouncing her foot furiously beneath a gown, a well-meaning handmaiden taking the outside edge of a steep walkway all go so much farther to convey the feeling than a mere “Ista was frustrated.” Ista herself is quite a woman, with intelligence and depths of character; her moments of sly humor streaking through her thoughts bring a smile to Ista and the reader, even as she conceals her thoughts from her surrounding company. “She wondered, a little dryly, if the school also had a particularly fine cook.” “She approached the possessed animal, who lowered its head again… in what might be submission, love or dementia.”
Yet while Ista develops and pushes herself in new directions, Bujold wisely keeps transformations believable. (view spoiler) At one point, the pilgrims are captured by an invading force. When rescue comes, it’s from an outside agency, and when Ista plays a role in the action, it’s not by using a stiletto knife concealed in her clothes; rather it is through well-timed direction of her horse. All in all, a well-balanced and nicely developed book that deserves its many awards.
Four powerfully aging stars.