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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:  City of Soldiers by Sam Burke

REVIEW: City of Soldiers by Sam Burke

CityofSoldiers

Sean Gordon returns from the war in Afghanistan with a bad leg, no job, and a heart grieving for lost friends. Lonely and searching, he’s interested in exploring his submissive side but can’t even tell his own family he’s gay. He’s unable to find a strong man to fulfill his deepest, most shameful fantasies and sees only a bleak, unhappy future.

Everything changes when he meets Roman Mahoney, part of a secret group of former soldiers who live in Philadelphia’s forgotten underground and protect an ancient secret. Roman is asexual and proud of it, but yearns for romance with a man who will tolerate the lingering effects of his head injuries and not pressure him for sex. He ends up emotionally caught between two dominating men—the disgraced veteran who cares for him and a Philly cop with a love of bondage. Slowly Sean and Roman begin to connect, adding fuel to the fire of old rivalries and insecurities.

With a serial killer on the loose and targeting homeless veterans, Roman, Sean, and their friends struggle to meet across sexual divides. True love awaits—but so does a killer’s vengeance.

Review.

Dear Sam Burke,

If I ever saw a blurb which does not do justice to the book, while technically describing correct information, this blurb is IT. This blurb makes the book look like an erotic romance, which in my opinion it is really not. In fact I do not think this is a romance at all, even though it certainly shows complex relationships among the men named in the blurb. I think this is first and foremost a book about the awful ways our society treats our veterans, and how these people attempt to deal with the horrors they have to live in when they come back from the wars society sent them to fight. I want to warn readers not to expect an angst fest. All the main characters have really bad war injuries to deal with – physical and psychological, but the book deals with their pain very matter of fact way.

More importantly, while their pain is not minimized at all, I really loved that these guys still try to help those around them who may be in worse circumstances than they are.

“Brackett did not reply. On the TV, astronauts died one by one and the survivors tried to save the planet. You couldn’t save everyone. Roman knew that from the war. But you did your best to save the ones you loved and had vowed to protect or you died trying.”

These men are not perfect, they certainly have flaws and multiple flaws at that, but still the first word that comes to mind when I think about Roman, Kristian, Sean and several others is “admiration”. It is really easy to admire these guys and want them to get better and also to hope that institutions and society in general will get some clues about how much our veterans deserve better treatment in all areas of life.

This story is also a mystery. The question of who is killing homeless veterans drives the plot in a several significant ways and moves the relationships forward. I both liked and disliked the resolution of the mystery. I liked it because I could understand the motives of the killer (as much as you can understand the motives of the deranged person). However, I thought that the clues for the killer’s identity were too obvious. When the circle of suspects was narrowed down to the people main characters know and interact with, the killer was showing too much casual cruelty. To me it was very clear who the killer was, and I hope it won’t be too obvious for other readers. I did not think that the story suffered much because of it, it still worked for me as suspense, but I had to note that I did not have to do much guessing, if any.

I thought that the existing relationships between the main characters and those that were forming right in front of reader’s eyes were the very best part of this story. I said it is not a romance IMO, but there was certainly a lot of love between main guys, as well as friendship, support, and all the things I love reading about.

I said that the blurb supplied technically correct information, but I am really not sure if Roman getting “caught up” between two dominating men would be completely technically correct. Yes, both Kristian and Michael (the cop referenced in the blurb) love him. This however seemed to be something all three of them had known for a while and they seemed to be content with the status quo. Sean is the one who unintentionally destroyed the status quo by being attracted to Roman and to other people. The bonds that tie all of these men together are being tested and new bonds are being formed, but there are no neat answers – just as life rarely supplies you with answers.

As blurb states Roman is asexual. This is the first time I’ve read an m/m book with the asexual character being front and center, perhaps even the most important character in the book. This certainly adds another layer of complexity when everybody involved is trying to figure out where they stand. Here is how Roman is trying to explain who he is to Sean.

“I like guys,” he told Sean. “Guys who work hard, who are honest with you, who make the world a better place just by being in it. All my best friends are guys. The best thing in the world would be someone I could live with every day, go to sleep every night, someone who’d cuddle up on the sofa and watch dumb movies. Someone who’s glad to see me. But I don’t want the big thing, the thing everyone else wants. The deal breaker.”
Sean look confused. “What deal breaker?”
“You tell me,” Roman said. “What do you want from the guy you sleep with?”
‘I’d want…I don’t know. Love?”
“Love is not a deal breaker. Think lower.”
“You don’t want…” Sean’s gaze went to Roman’s crotch. “Sex?”
“Never.”
“Sean’s expression was half disbelief, half humor. “You’re joking.”
“Not joking,” Roman said. “Never wanted it. Not my thing. It’s called asexual.”
“You’ve never had sex,” Sean said tentatively, as if trying the idea on for size.
“I didn’t say that. I said I don’t want it. Now ask me other things: do I jerk off, do I have fantasies, did I ask a doctor, is it the brain injury, is it my medicine? Sometimes, sometimes, yes, no, no.”
“I lost track after jerk off.” Sean scratched the side of his head. “I’ve never met anyone who didn’t want to have sex. It’s just… built in, right?”
Roman said, “Not into me, I’m asexual.”
“Asexual.”
“Yes.”
“But that’s not …common,” Sean said.
“I’m glad you didn’t say normal,” Roman replied.”

Roman is just such an appealing character. It would have been so easy for the author to crank the angst level up because of his brain injury alone, but he deals with cards life gave him and tries to make the best of it. He knows it will not be easy for him to find a relationship he wants, but he keeps hoping and when he meets a person he knows he might fall in love with, he deals the cards he has been given, even if he has to compromise to make those he loves happy and try to get some happiness for himself too.

As I said before, this book really does not supply neat answers in the relationship department. I thought this book ended very satisfactorily, but there is absolutely no romantic resolution for anybody. But I felt that the deep love these men have for each other will help them figure it out no matter what.

“I get you every Friday night,” Brackett said. Everything else we’ll improvise”.
No, I am not telling you whom he is saying these words to and what if anything this means.

There is a magical element in the book, but the book is not a fantasy. I thought the magical element was used very effectively to bring a certain point home about helping these guys heal their many hurts, I really liked that using it had very clear side effects and that it could not heal everything. It was a little strange to read, but I decided that I really liked it.

Grade: B+

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