I am the Mouth of Hell
I encountered the word “paladin” when I was ten or eleven, and I learned it from the the real-time strategy game Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. So the conception of a paladin in my head is one of burly armoured knights on horseback armed with holy magical abilities and inspired by divine faith. That is not an image that resemble Ista, the protagonist of Ms Bujold’s Paladin of Souls. In fact, Ista is the farthest cry one can imagine from anybody’s idea of a paladin.
Paladin of Souls is the follow up to Ms Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, and rather than continuing the tale of Cazaril (the hero of Curse), she decided instead to focus on 40-year-old Ista, a tragic side character whom Cazaril encountered briefly in the course of his story. Paladin of Souls takes place several years after the events in The Curse of Chalion. By this time, the titular curse had been lifted and Ista, one of its victims, found herself in the throes of a midlife crisis.
Once, she had been her parents’ daughter. Then great, unlucky Ias’s wife. Her children’s mother. At the last, her mother’s keeper. Well, I am none of these things now. Who am I, when I am not surrounded by the walls of my life?
All her life, Ista had been the side character to the lives of everyone around her, and when she found herself no longer defined by the supporting roles she played, she felt lost. Officially, she is the dowager queen, but she enjoys little power due to her reputation of being driven to insanity by grief in her youth. She spent most of her adult life being governed and dominated by her ladies-in-waiting and her own imperious mother, and when her mother passed on, she found herself mistress of the estate she left behind. Regardless, everyone still treats her like delicate glass-work, liable to shatter at the gentlest provocation. She despairs that at 40 years of age, she had achieved nothing, and possesses no great skill or talent with which to make her mark. As I said, hardly the makings of a heroic paladin.
The World of the Five Gods (as the series is called) is one that is governed by a pentarchy of deities: the Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter and the Bastard—the last of which was supposedly birthed by the Mother in a tryst with a demon. Paladins are stereotypically cast as paragons of devotion to the gods, but Ista would sooner curse them than work for them as she holds them responsible for the sorrows in her early life. Paladin of Souls begins with a road trip that Ista undertakes under the pretense of religious pilgrimage, when she really loathes the gods and just wants a holiday. When the dreams start, she is sure they are being sent by the gods. Before she knows it, she finds herself neck-deep in the middle of a strange magical mystery involving love affair gone wrong, a comatose man, a dashing dead lord (though he doesn’t realise he is dead yet), and an apparent plague of demons. She does the best she can, begrudgingly and sarcastically. And the story that Ms Bujold told is a tightly plotted one, and like the gods’ plans for her, every piece of it fits beautifully at the end. If I can offer a single critique of Paladin of Souls, it is that it took its time getting to that end (and less patient readers may have difficulty sustaining interest until its payoff). While I don’t think it is strictly necessary to read The Curse of Chalion before reading Paladin of Souls, I would recommend it if only to see where Ista came from.
As fantasy novels go, Paladin of Souls has stakes which are low, and the perspectives are intimate—but its scope extends to the hereafter. Ms Bujold’s proven talent in writing nuanced, complex characters and relationships shines just as brightly here. Unlike sincere, selfless Cazaril in The Curse of Chalion, Ista’s voice is cynical and weary. Though she shares Cazaril’s tendency towards self-deprecation, she has no interest in being involved in the gods’ effing ineffeable plans. What I found most enjoyable about Paladin of Souls is Ista’s re-ignition of her arrested development and recovery from prolonged infantilisation due to her status both as a woman and as a mentally ill person. I feel that her hostility towards the gods comes in part from a fractured self-esteem. She simply does not believe herself worthy, given her past failures, and cannot bear to be saddled with purpose and destiny again.
This book really spoke to me as I find myself growing closer and closer to my own 40th year and believing that the best years of my life are in the rearview.
You are brilliant, the Voice reassured her.
It is imperfect.
So are all things trapped in time. You are brilliant nonetheless. How fortunate for Us that We thirst for glorious souls rather than faultless ones, or We should be parched indeed, and most lonely in Our perfect righteousness. Carry on imperfectly, shining Ista.
There are many fantasy books written for children, young adults and those young-at-heart, but few are directed to aging souls all ready to be designated as the supporting characters in the stories of others. Ms Bujold’s book reminds us that it is never too late to start taking control of our own lives. We are, all of us, imperfect—but we can be glorious too, if we aren’t too afraid to shine. Paladin of Souls is everything I want in a book: it is very well-written, it is satisfying, and most of all, it is inspiring. Ista comes of age at 40, and that is because the gods spent a little more time working on her than most.