When Paladin of Souls bagged Bujold her fourth Best Novel Hugo, she became the only novelist other than Heinlein to be so honored. (It also won her her second Nebula.) This extraordinary achievement makes a strong case that not only is Bujold's stature likely to equal his in coming generations, but that her stature as SF's most important woman already equals and most likely surpasses that of such icons as McCaffrey, Bradley, Cherryh, and LeGuin.
Having heaped those accolades, I now must come back to Earth and announce that I wish this sequel to The Curse of Chalion had been as strong a book as that one. Paladin of Souls is quite good. From any other writer in the field I might have bumped up the rating a notch. There is much here to enjoy and admire in equal measure, and I'm not in the least displeased it ran off with every award under the sun despite its predecessor's being more deserving. It's just that, considering what Bujold achieved in Curse, in creating an epic fantasy as thought-provoking as it was viscerally entertaining, the fact that Paladin of Souls is so much more traditional in its approach is kind of a shame. Curse was no simple escapist novel; Paladin is more escapist than anything else. Though expertly crafted escapism, it lacks the earlier book's intellectual substance, its moral sense of consequence. While Curse was given a stylistic and literary identity apart from Bujold's ever-popular Miles Vorkosigan saga, Paladin reads like a Miles book in a fantasy setting.
Sure, this seems a little like complaining that your hot fudge sundae would be better if it had as much Hershey's syrup on it as the one you had last week. But the point is, there's no reason this novel couldn't have had all, instead of just some of, the depth and breadth that made Curse a masterpiece. Bujold has followed up a great fantasy with a very good one, which I admit is the kind of "problem" most writers wish they had.
What is particularly impressive about Paladin of Souls is Bujold's defiance of the conventional wisdom of sequel writing. One would have expected her second Chalion novel to follow the further adventures of the noble Cazaril and his royal charges Iselle and Bergon, as they rule the united kingdoms of Chalion-Ibra in their benevolence. But none of those characters ever puts in an appearance. Instead, Bujold turns her attention to the hard-done-by mother of Iselle, the Dowager Royina Ista.
Long thought mad due both to the family curse vanquished by Cazaril in the first book, and by her guilt over her part in the death of her husband's most trusted advisor, Ista now grows weary of her confinement within the walls of Valenda. Overcoming the disapproval of her court, she undertakes a much-needed holiday, traveling cross-country with a very small retinue consisting of only a dozen or so men-at-arms, a rough-hewn courier girl conscripted on a whim by Ista to be her lady-in-waiting, and a couple of companions of Cazaril's from the first novel, here fleshed out as characters more fully. There is also an itinerant monk of the order of the Bastard, the fifth and most meddlesome god in Bujold's five-deity Quintarian religion. Ista doesn't really mean to be undertaking a spiritual pilgrimage (however serious the monk might be), but it's the easiest way to convince her horrified household at Valenda to let her go without a literal army at her back. (She is, after all, the queen-mother of her kingdom.)
When Ista's party is captured quite shockingly by a ragtag retreating army of Roknari from the hostile enemy province of Jokona, all seems lost. But Ista and Co. are quickly rescued by the governor (the "march") of the outlying Chalionese city of Porifors, and safely ensconced in his castle. To Ista's alarm, the March Arhys dy Lutez is one of the acknowledged bastard sons of the man Ista helped to murder years back, in a failed and foolish attempt to remove her family curse. But soon it becomes clear that Ista's coming to Porifors was no dumb luck, but more godly meddling at work. The dy Lutez family appears to have its own catalogue of spiritual blight, involving Arhys, his young wife Cattilara, and Arhys's strangely comatose brother Illvin, about whom Ista has been having curious, prescient dreams.
So essentially, what we have here is a redux of the basic plot of The Curse of Chalion: Ista, it seems, has been divinely drawn to Porifors to play the Cazaril role in ridding a noble family of a dreadful burden that threatens not only them but all the land. There are differences in detail, but the premise is pretty similar to the previous book's, which is kind of a letdown. Here, there is the element of Ista's chance to do some good redemptive deeds, to make up for her crime against Arhys's father. But curiously (or perhaps for the better; it's hard to make up one's mind here), Bujold really downplays that aspect. If this was a deliberate choice of Bujold's, for fear that such an open and obvious approach to the redemption theme might have been mawkish, I can understand. But then, what we're left with is an entertaining book that still wanders in search of the intellectual and thematic heft of its predecessor.
As I said earlier, I admire Bujold's chutzpah in taking her sequel in unexpected directions, and focusing on an unconventional fantasy heroine (a formerly mad 40-year-old widowed murderess). Truth to tell, Bujold hinted at this on the last page of Curse, in a low-key and profoundly moving scene with Cazaril in the dénouement. But in Paladin, Ista, while in the end a wholly winning heroine, quite often comes across as too reminiscent of Cordelia Naismith from the Vorkosigan novels. This impression is only enhanced by Bujold's return to the easygoing prose style with which she writes the Vorkosigan books, a style she had replaced with one a bit more formalist in Curse.
Taken as purely escapist, as an enjoyable adventure/romance/thriller, Paladin of Souls scores. It is nice to see the long-suffering Ista come into her own, after all. And the unfolding mystery of just What Is Rotten in Porifors is full of compelling suspense and a few plum surprises. The story is a solid piece of talespinning that, while it might not be destined for the classic status that will doubtless befall The Curse of Chalion, will nevertheless more than satisfy the legion of fans who have so generously filled Bujold's mantlepiece with Hugos.