Sequel to The Curse of Chalion, Bujold’s 2004 Hugo-winning novel Paladin of Souls picks up three years after Iselle’s rise to the throne. In this novel, we follow Ista, Iselle’s mother and former royina of Chalion, as she thwarts the machinations of a demon-queen set on destroying the new alliance between Ibran and Chalion. While Curse focuses on the supposed ability of women to be trafficked about without attachment, Paladin focuses on what happens to a woman after she has been trafficked: Ista has lost her husband and her sole remaining child is a competent royina in her own right. After the death of her mother, Ista finds herself without any responsibilities, a state that is oppressive rather than liberating because of her station and gender.
The Plot: The novel opens shortly after the death of Ista’s mother. Finding herself expected to take up her mother’s place and life of easy gentility among people she cannot stand and who still suppose that she might slip back into madness any second, Ista plans a pilgrimage as a form of escape, though she feels only hatred toward the gods. Despite the complaints of those charged with her “keeping,” she insists on a pilgrimage made in modesty, with only courier rider Liss to serve as both lady-in-waiting and groom, a company of soldier-dedicats to the Daughter lead by brothers Ferda and Foix, and the Learned dy Cabon of the Bastard’s order. Though Ista travels in cognito, her true identity is quickly spilled at every stop by dy Cabon, though this is the least of her worries: her god-dreams have returned. The action of the novel really begins when the party is attacked by a demon-infested bear whom Foix, unfortunately, kills, thus inflicting himself with the demon. Indeed, dy Cabon tells Ista that demons have been quite prevalent throughout the area for a few years, though the divines do not know the cause of the sudden increase in numbers. Luckily, the demon that inhabits Foix is very young and will not be able to take over his will for some time, giving the party plenty of time to reach a major city to consult with specialists in demon-possession. This plan, however, is interrupted with the party is attacked by a troop of Roknari riders from the adjacent country of Jokona. Because the Roknari are Quadrenes and believe the Bastard to be a demon instead of a god, dy Cabon and Foix are separated from the rest of the party for their safety, as well as Liss who rides out to seek help. After a number of days of captivity, Ista is rescued by Lord Arhys dy Lutez, a capable and handsome warrior who neither eats nor sleeps except for an hour in the midday. Ista and the remaining soldier-dedicats who travel with her are taken to Castle Porifors, where Ista meets Arhys’s wife Cattilara and the man she has been seeing in her dreams, the nearly-dead half-brother of Arhys, Illvin. The mystery unravels something like this: Ista’s second sight is returned and she is able to see that Catti is inhabited by a demon, but one that she is in control of. Several months previously, the Castle Porifors was visited by a princess of Jokona who was to marry Illvin. Instead, she seduced Arhys into her chamber one night, where they were confronted by Catti and Illvin. After the resultant scuffle, both the princess and Arhys were dead and Catti was inhabited by the demon that had been controlling the princess, the demon that had made her irresistible to Arhys. Catti uses the demon to bring Arhys back to life, but to keep his body alive, he must continually draw life from his brother Illvin, resulting in Illvin’s mysterious illness. The larger picture for this little family problem is that Joen, the princess dowager of Jokona, is inhabited by a very powerful demon, one that can control other demons which Joen has been forcing upon many of her children and followers, creating a troop of sorcerers completely under her control. As Joen marches on Porifors, Liss, dy Cabon, and Foix (and demon) rejoin Ista as they prepare for the coming confrontation. Ista starts falling in love with Illvin, and Arhys makes one final ride destroying as many sorcerers as he can before finally being allowed to die by Catti’s demon. Ista allows herself to be taken prisoner by Joen, and as she stands before the sorceress, the Bastard gives her the gift of eating demons, allowing them to pass through her and back into the spirit realm where they belong. In this manner, she becomes a saint of the Bastard, escaping her humdrum life as a dowager royina for traveling with the army of Chalion against Jokona to deal with whatever other demons they may meet.
Paladin of Souls continues with themes from Curse in a couple of ways. First of all, Ista’s struggle with her place in the machinations of gods and demons reflects Cazaril’s difficulties in sussing out the relationships between human agency and divine intervention, though in Paladin we see Ista choosing much more explicitly; she asks to have her second sight returned to her, though perhaps she is a bit worn down by the Bastard’s constant attentions. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, Paladin shows us what happens in another segment of life for the trafficked woman. At the intersection of these two things, one would usually see the Crone, the wise old woman with mystical powers, and to a certain degree, Ista fits this label. But then there are all the ways that she doesn’t. For starters, Crones are rarely main characters; usually they are on the sidelines to help younger characters reach their goals (or hinder them, depending on whether we’re talking about the good witch or the wicked witch). Secondly, for a Crone to display any kind of sexual desire is somehow obscene, yet one of Ista’s primary transformations is finding herself interested in men, first Arhys then Illvin (finding out that the first was dead really put a damper on the attraction). Finally, Crones are usually kept in out-of-sight places: temples, isolated cabins in the woods, etc. At the end of the novel, Ista opts to travel with the troops rather than situating herself in a home or temple to do her demon removal work.
What we seem to have with this novel, much like with Curse, is an apt demonstration of a inaccurate stereotype: just as Iselle could not be saved simply by marrying out of the curse, Ista cannot be the Crone. I find this trend in Bujold’s work really interesting, especially given that she seems to have been trying to draw in both fantasy readers and romance readers with these forays into the fantasy genre.