Paladin of Souls
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2004 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
2004 Nebula Winner for Best Novel
Yet another Hugo award for my archenemy Bujold and once more I am forced to concede that it is actually pretty go... hey, wait a second. This one isn't particularly good at all!
Paladin of Souls is the first novel to win a Hugo from the epic fantasy genre. Usually found clustered in three book series it has become the cash cow of sf/fantasy in the past few decades. I can't stand them myself despite having read quite a bit of it when I was younger. It has reached the point where I will not read a fantasy book if it features industrious dwarves, nature loving elves, or evil orcs. Borrowing characterization and world building from someone else is not the path to creating quality fiction.
Bujold doesn't follow the standard pattern of these books by not cribbing Tolkien-esque races, but she does fall deeply into the other major trap that annoys me about epic fantasy. Her cultures are essentially modern day European with the trappings of medieval Europe. In these novels the heroes are the ones who are most like modern day progressive thinkers while anyone who actually behaves like they're living in an feudal society is at best the patronizing foil if not an out and out villain. It's the a similar problem to the one I had with Hominids: modern day western culture cannot be transplanted to an non-industrial agrarian society. The problems become even more pronounced when fantasy elements that should completely transform society are introduced but the author sticks to their Renaissance festival culture.
Paladin of Souls is the second in Bujold's Chalion series (I actually disliked the previous book The Curse of Chalion even more). This time the middle aged dowager queen who was a minor character in the first book decides to flee her life and go on a pilgrimage. On the way she meets a spunky peasant girl who defies society's conventions and faces a demon before getting captured by an enemy nation. She is rescued by an unstoppable knight who takes her back to his castle which is holding the border on the eve of a war. There she finds a mystery involving his brother who is hovering on the brink of death twenty-three hours a day.
Bujold's writing is up to its usual breezy standards but the story she's telling just isn't that interesting. It's another light adventure novel from Bujold but at this point her formula is wearing thin. You could almost copy and paste some of the characters straight from her Vorkosigan books. I wasn't interested in the characters and it doesn't help that there's quite a bit of literal deus ex machinas occurring (in fairness to Bujold some of the divine interference is set up). The result was that I just couldn't care about the book.
My reaction wasn't as violent as it could have been, but that doesn't make me like the book. There's other popular fantasy authors who have the same problems and can't string a sentence together like Bujold. Still in the end I can't recommend Paladin of Souls; I just didn't enjoy it. It's a standard generic fantasy novel just like hundreds of other ones.