Page count: 456 in the large paperback edition
Time taken: 4 hours
Ista, dowager Royina of Chalion, has finally been released from the toxic influence of the curse which affected the royal house for generations. With her mother recently dead, she finds herself able to take charge of her life for the first time, and sets off on a voyage of discovery disguised as a pilgrimage: Ista has no desire to speak to any of the gods, ever again. Unfortunately, the gods have other ideas, and she finds herself on an all-too-familiar path. Will this one, too, lead her into death and madness, or will she find a way through the darkness?
The second of three books set in a late-medieval world where gods, demons and souls are all real, Paladin of Souls follows on pretty directly from The Curse of Chalion, and contains spoilers for it. However, you don’t have to read them in order as enough exposition is given. The theme of the series is the five gods of the world: Father of Winter, Mother of Summer, Son of Autumn, Daughter of Spring, and the Bastard, god of things out of season. This book is primarily concerned with the Bastard, although there is another cameo appearance. My understanding is that Bujold intends a series of five books, one for each god, but has only made it through three so far – the third one, The Hallowed Hunt, is set a couple of hundred years before Chalion and Paladin and can be read as a stand-alone with no spoiler concerns.
I love the gods of this world, who are all characters in their own right. Bujold is, I believe, quietly religious herself, although she neither proselytises nor evangelises in her works, and if she’s a practising Christian she’s definitely a modern one who likes birth control and gay people. The sense of the spiritual I get from this series is not something I would associate from a lifelong atheist, certainly, and the theology of the world is well thought-out and examined in all three books.
The secondary theme in this book is recovery from mental health issues, and as such it can be a bit of a difficult read. In the parlance of the time and place, Ista was driven mad by grief, and rage, and guilt, and a mystical curse. When the curse is lifted, she is still heartsick and depressed, albeit no longer actively suicidal and occasionally raving. Her journey to whole-ness is convincing and filled with all of the pitfalls one might expect, and the occasional flashes of her former thought patterns and processes are both worrying from a reader’s point of view, and entirely on the money from a sufferer’s perspective – again, I suspect personal knowledge from Bujold, although I do not know any specifics. As a chronic depressive, Ista is both mirror and aspiration.
This book is my favourite book of all time. I cannot read it without tears and laughter, and it warms my battered soul to the core. It deals with a wide variety of topics which are personal and constant headweasels: family, religion, depression, self-hatred – pretty much all of my worst thoughts are covered in this in one way or another. Despite the difficulty of the subject matter (for me personally, I don’t think it’s as on-point for everyone), I return to it again and again. If I could only read one book for the rest of my life, it would be this book. If I lose the ability to read, or hear, or feel my body, I will still find my way back to this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough: it has genuinely enriched my life, and I hope it does yours too.
5 stars, obviously.