Paladin of Souls won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards when it came out, and is generally reckoned one of the prolific Bujold’s masterpieces, perhaps the best book she’s ever written. That’s a lot of hype to live up to. And it lived up to it.
All the problems I mentioned in my review of The Curse of Chalion stand. However, the heights of emotion which this book reached, particularly in the final third, more than make up for the worldbuilding problem I discussed in my earlier post.
In summary: Ista (analogous to the mentally ill Isabella of Portugal, mother of Isabella the Catholic) is freed from the titular curse of the last book. With her husband and parents dead and her sole surviving child grown-up and married, she’s not quite sure what to do with herself. To escape the narrow life planned for her by well-meaning relatives and friends, she goes on a pilgrimage, but when her party is attacked by enemy soldiers, she ends up at the castle of her rescuer Arhys dy Lutez–the son of Arvol, the man she killed long ago trying unsuccessfully to break the curse.
There are bigger problems than her old guilt and hatred towards Arvol, though. Arhys, his wife, and his brother are caught in a demonic mess that threatens to kill them all, and Ista has been brought there by a god, the Bastard, to sort out the problem. But with her last brush with divinity and magic having ended in Arvol’s murder, she’s reluctant to trust any deity.
Things get worse when more enemy soldiers show up to besiege the castle. There’s no way they’re all getting out of this tangle alive, but death at the right time might be worth everything…
My favorite part of this book was the character of Arhys, who is a genuinely good guy (despite his lax fidelity to his wife Cattilara). The other characters call him “great-souled” and despite his flaws, it’s obviously true. He has a strong sibling relationship with his illegitimate brother, and a romantic image of his long-dead father, which Ista shatters. But when the truth about his father, whose courage broke during the effort to lift the curse, is out, he says he does “not desire any softer wreath”.
The way Ista sees him shifts over time, from rescuer/potential romantic prospect to son of a man she hates to hapless part of a mess she’s meant to fix to hero. Their (decidedly non-romantic) relationship, with the grace of the gods, manages to heal Ista of all the rage, guilt, and bitterness that has haunted her since she killed Arvol in her failed ritual.
All the other characters are also sharply drawn–the clever, good-hearted Illvin, the determined though childish Cattilara, the complex figure of Arvol, and Ista’s own personality–cynical, impatient, tough, but reawakening to life.