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About Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

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REVIEW:  Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

REVIEW: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Readers please note: If you haven’t read book one in this series, The Curse of Chalion, you may wish to avoid this review of book two, which contains spoilers for the earlier novel.

Dear Ms. Bujold,

A week or two ago I finished reading the first book in your Chalion series, set in a fantasy world based on medieval Spain. Only rarely do I read books by the same author so close together, but soon after finishing The Curse of Chalion, I found myself craving more of the same world.

paladin_of_soulsPaladin of Souls takes place three years after the events of The Curse of Chalion and its heroine is dowager royina Ista, whose role in the earlier book was considerably smaller. Nonetheless, Ista’s backstory in that first book makes quite an impression.

When she was only eighteen, Ista was married to Ias, Roya (King) of Chalion. Not only did Ista learn that her much older husband’s closest friend and chancellor was also his lover, she also discovered something even worse—that members of the royal family, herself and any children she might bear included, were horribly cursed.

This knowledge came to the pregnant Ista two years after her marriage, through visitations from one of the Chalionese gods, the Mother (Chalion’s is a family-based pantheon, including the Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter and the Bastard).

In her visitations from the Mother, Ista was granted second sight and told how the curse might be lifted, yet her misinterpretation of the goddess’s instructions resulted in the murder of her husband’s lover, Arvol dy Lutez, the eventual death of Roya Ias, and the worsening of the curse.

Twenty years have since passed, seventeen of which Ista spent in a fog of near-madness. Her second sight is now gone, as is her young son Teidez, who was taken by the curse. With the curse lifted three years ago (to find out how, read The Curse of Chalion), Ista’s daughter Iselle now sits on the throne, and Chalion thrives. Ista is no longer lost in her fog, but she is at loose ends.

Ista’s ladies in waiting and her late mother’s castle warder keep her in comfort and security, without realizing they are suffocating her. Most people think her mad or close to it, so Ista feels herself growing not only weaker and older, but less effective and more limited in agency.

All this begins to change when Ista leaves the castle and stumbles across a party of pilgrims. She’s been craving an escape from her well-meaning protectors, and she seizes on the idea of a pilgrimage as a pretext for leaving home. In this she is unexpectedly assisted by a confluence of circumstances that enable her to shed her keepers and acquire a lively party of her own.

With Liss, a young royal courier, serving as her lady-in-waiting, two brothers, Fox and Ferda, and the ten soldiers sent with them by her daughter’s chancellor to secure her journey, and a new clergyman, Learned dy Cabon, to help her pass off her getaway as a spiritual quest, Ista makes her bid for freedom. She does not foresee that her so-called pilgrimage will indeed become spiritual journey when the gods of Chalion once again come knocking at her door.

Long ago, in bitterness over the Mother’s unclear instructions which led her to commit a crime, Ista turned away from the gods. But the gods are determined to conscript her once more, and turning away again and again isn’t as simple or easy as she wishes.

From dy Cabon, Ista learns that an unusually high number of the Bastard’s demons are loose in the world, inhabiting the bodies of animals and occasionally people. She also dreams of a comatose stranger who lies in a chamber bleeding from the chest, a golden cord of magic extending out from him and across the room. In her dream the man pleads for her help, but once awake, Ista shuts her ears to his appeal.

Dy Cabon then approaches Ista, and reveals that he has been having odd dreams himself, dreams that feature her, and which began before their first meeting. In fact, he took charge of her pilgrimage in place of another member of the clergy because he believed he was called by his god to guide her.

Even in the face of this sign that her journey is the work of the deities, Ista refuses to cooperate with their wishes. Then a member of her party is possessed by a demon, and Ista begins to use her rusty ability to sense the spiritual. When the soldiers from the neighboring kingdom of Roknar attack her group, Ista does her best to protect those she can and hopes for rescue.

Rescue seems at first to appear, in the form of Arhys, March of Porifors, an uncommonly handsome nobleman who fights the Roknaris with courage and strength. Ista begins to think she is falling in love, but then she learns that Arhys is a member of the dy Lutez family, the youngest son of the man whose death and notoriety she and the gods are responsible for.

But like the gods, like Ista herself, Arhys isn’t exactly what he appears, as Ista discovers when she find him in his tent, dead to all appearances, bleeding from the chest much like the man of whom she dreamed. When he wakes Ista is left with multiple questions.

How can two men share the same wound? Who or what is responsible for their unnatural comas, and what is the connection between the men? Has one of them been sent to redeem or rescue Ista, or has Ista been sent to the aid of one of them?

Further, what are the Roknari soldiers doing in Chalion? Why are there so many demons loose in the kingdom? How can Ista protect the members of her party from these dangerous doings? Do the answers lie in listening to the gods’ instructions, and if so, can Ista trust the gods enough to do so again?

I thought this book had a more engaging beginning than The Curse of Chalion, but that may be because I already knew something of Ista from the earlier novel and had a stronger idea of what to expect from the storyline. Even so, the novel managed to surprise me more than a few times.

Ista is a wonderful character, wry and intelligent, with liking for most people but cynicism toward the gods. For this reason I thought she was a more fully believable character than Cazaril, who, though wonderful in his own way, was a little too good to seem entirely real.

I loved Ista’s arc, her journey from overprotected dowager royina to… something else altogether. She not only regains her faith, but also her faith in herself, her own power and agency. Her worldview alters, and she comes out not only on top, but equally importantly, in charge of her life.

For all that she thinks of herself as a dried up old prune, Ista also discovers that she is still capable of sexual attraction and romantic yearnings. Though I did get a little tired of the frequency with which she thought of herself as old at only age forty, I put this down partly to her being a member of a medieval society, and partly to a distortion in her sense of her own age due to all she had lived through. It lovely great to see her discover that she wasn’t as aged as she thought.

But while there is a romantic element to this novel, and a man who falls in love for Ista, that is only a subplot. The main plot deals with saving a community, but the novel could also be described as a different kind of love story, one between Ista and her guiding deity. Ista begins her relationship with this deity reluctant, but emerges not enthusiastic and triumphant. It was a fascinating dynamic; not always comfortable reading but compelling.

I liked the side characters a lot too, especially Liss and Learned dy Cabon, Arhys, and the man in Ista’s dreams. Another character, Cattilara, whose role in the novel involves a spoiler I won’t reveal, was irritating and immature.  She could have easily turned into a caricature, but she didn’t. The big bad of the novel could have been developed more, but even this was an interesting portrayal. The same could be said of more minor characters, too.

Spoiler: Show

There is a big twist that comes in the middle of the book when we discover that a character isn’t at all what appearances indicate. I was warned about it in advance so I took it in stride, but if I hadn’t been, I might have reacted differently.

Paladin of Souls is a terrific fantasy novel, one I think most readers will enjoy. I certainly did, so I recommend it to others. For me, this one rates a B+.

Sincerely,

Janine

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REVIEW:  The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

REVIEW: The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Dear Ms. Bujold,

Last year my husband and I started reading your fantasy novel, The Curse of Chalion. We read it aloud to each other but only got as far as the 34% mark before we decided the pace was too slow.

The-Curse-of-ChalionI posted about this in my reading list post from last summer, and several readers assured me that if I continued, I’d see the pace accelerate. Then, earlier this year, some months after we put it down, my husband began reading it again and told me that ironically, we’d put it down just at the point when the story was about to get exciting.

This led me to pick up The Curse of Chalion again, and start reading from the point at which we quit. Since writing this review necessitates piecing together two different reading experiences that took place a year apart, I’ve decided to structure this review a little bit differently than I usually do, by quoting from my old post and giving my current thoughts on some of my previous observations.

The novel begins with its protagonist, Cazaril, wandering the countryside of Chalion homeless and wearing rags. Charity and the death of a well-dressed stranger bring Cazaril a bit of coin and good clothing, and he uses these to make himself presentable to the provincara, a noblewoman whose household he once served, in the hope of earning a position with her and thus, some food and shelter.

Although I read it over a year ago, I still recall this portion of the book fondly. I loved the way Cazaril’s weariness came across, and how, at his most exhausted, he found the courage to try to improve his circumstances by approaching the provincara, though in his humility and modesty, he never expected to reach the heights he ascends to later in the book.

Eventually Cazaril, himself a member of the nobility but also a war veteran fallen on hard times, succeeds beyond his wildest imaginings—and also beyond his desires. He becomes tutor to the royesse Iselle and her lady in waiting Betriz, to whom Cazaril is attracted. Unfortunately this position beings him to Chalion’s royal court, and to the notice of old and powerful enemies who believed him dead.

Cazaril was a sympathetic protagonist, weary but also wise and, despite a great deal of fear, courageous.

I still agree with this description of Cazaril, but I’ll now add that he is perhaps too wise for his years. Though only in his thirties, he comes across as more mature than most people I know. In addition, the description of his gray beard made it difficult for me to picture him as a man still in his thirties, and every time his age was mentioned I got a jolt. I think this may have been intended.

I also think that Cazaril was almost too good and too fortunate. What spares him from the Marty Stu label is that he suffers, and that he has moments of wanting to be selfish, though he always ends up putting his duty to the royesse (princess) Iselle ahead of his personal wants.

The side characters were likewise interesting and appealing, and the writing lovely.

I still like the writing.

With regard to the side characters, I like most of them, especially Iselle and Betriz, but also Cazaril’s friend Palli, Iselle’s brother Teidez’s tutor Dy Sanda, and the mysterious Umegat, keeper of the royal menagerie.

Iselle’s brother Teidez was a character I wanted to see show more growth than he did. I also wanted to see the king (“roya”) Orico display a sign of backbone, but by the end of the book I understood why he as he was.

One of the villains, Lord Dondo Jironal, was a bit too repugnant. His brother, Chancellor Martou Jironal, was a more interesting villain in terms of his personality. I loved the way a character from Cazaril’s past reappears but felt this person was a little too conveniently perfect. For the most part though, the characterization in this book was superior.

While the mythology of the world was not as fascinating as some I’ve come across, it was fresh.

I have to take the first part of this sentence back, because the mythology became a lot more fascinating in the latter two thirds of the book. I especially liked the idea that sainthood is as much a curse as a blessing, as well as the idea that the gods of this world aren’t above humanity, but amidst it, if only people could look the right way and see them.

I was a bit annoyed by the use of terms like roya and royina where perfectly sound words like king and queen could have served, or provincar in place of duke, but appreciated the promise of political intrigue, which I generally like.

I got used to the made up terms, and there was much more political intrigue in the latter two-thirds of the book than in the section I read a year ago. The plotting was impressive, with several twists and surprises, some of which I saw coming and others of which I did not anticipate at all.

The main problem for me was the pacing. This novel was slow. And when I say slow, I mean really slow. Court life was portrayed in painstaking detail with a lot of ominous goings on but few actual turning point events.

The pace sped up considerably as the novel continued, but the slow pace in the first third is my main issue with this book. We don’t learn what the eponymous curse of Chalion is until the 45% mark and I really wish the first third of the book had given me a better idea of what to expect from the rest of it.

My other issue was the ending. Without giving too much away, I felt that Cazaril had a great deal of good fortune, and I might have found the novel more convincing had he died at the very end, after seeing the curse lifted.

The happy ending made me very happy for Cazaril, who deserved every bit of good that came his way. But I can’t help but feel that an ending in which he sacrificed his life would have been more fitting, if sadder.

The last time I tried to read The Curse of Chalion, my verdict was as follows:

This had all the makings of a good book otherwise, and we may even go back to it at some point, but since we’ve moved on to other books it gets a DNF.

This time, I’m very glad we did go back since I enjoyed and appreciated the rest of The Curse of Chalion so much more. This time it gets a B.

Sincerely,

Janine

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