After reading The Curse Of Chalion to prep myself for this book, that had come highly recommended to me by various sources, I made the mistake of reading the Wiki page and discovering that the Chalion saga is based very much on the historical House of Trastamara, the royal family that wound up uniting Spain around the turn of the 16th century despite great personal tragedy. Of course, remember that the unification of Spain allowed the Inquisition to run unchecked and that religious minorities were, at best, expelled from the peninsula — not that you’d suspect any of that given the way the subjects of religion and politics are handled in Paladin Of Souls. Despite being mapped very closely to historical figures, the characters in general are given none of the nuance of motive that real people have, instead being either good or evil based on which nation they belong to. This is problematic because these characters, despite changes to the specifics of religion and the addition of magic, are clearly stand-ins for Iberian Catholics and Muslims, and the depiction of Quintarians/Catholics as being tolerant and cosmopolitan whereas Quadrenes/Muslims are savage zealots when any student of history knows it was the reverse was deeply disturbing to me. It’s as if someone wrote a fantasy take on the Civil War where the Union was intent on zombifying the poor Africans whom the Confederates had saved from lives of savagery, y’know? That kind of revisionism is not okay.
But I can see where the allure of it would be hard to deny, in a way that isn’t explicitly bigoted against a particular people. The story of the Trastamarans is compellingly high drama, and if you just wanted to write a high romance with elements of fantasy in it, where you could explore your philosophical leanings but didn’t want to write something ridiculously long and probably overly complex, it’s easy to reduce the enemies of the main characters to being Bad People so you could get on with telling an exciting story. It just seems unethical, sort of the opposite side of the coin of what I complain about when I complain about Guy Gavriel Kay. GGK is too cautious as he retells history as fantasy. Here, I feel, Lois McMaster Bujold takes too many liberties. Both ways, it’s still pretty lazy.
History aside, would I have liked the book better? Maybe if Ista weren’t so awful. I tried so hard to like her: we’re both mothers, of middle age, with dim views of our “traditional” roles in society. But it bothers me that she doesn’t show actual remorse over dy Lutez’s death: she only seems upset that killing him didn’t end the curse, and she spends way too much time blaming him for not having the will to… what exactly? Live again so he could die again for her children? As much as I love my kids, I couldn’t kill someone on the off-chance it would save them. A person, for example, who would kill an organ donor in hopes it would help extend the life of her terminally-ill child is a fucking psychopath. As one of my favorite TV characters recently said, “Cool motive. Still murder.”
And then I didn’t care for her treatment of Cattilara. I get it, Catti is annoying and self-involved and hysterical, but maybe if Ista weren’t such a psychopath, she’d see how similar she and Catti are and try to relate to her that way. Instead, Ista is completely high-handed and awful to her, never even trying empathy and kindness as she forces Catti to do the right thing.
A friend compared this book to a sort of high fantasy Eat Pray Love and that probably also explains my dislike of the book, as well — the only thing worse than memoirs of privileged men in their angsty 20s are the memoirs of privileged women “finding themselves” in their 30s. Unlike my friend, I did enjoy the action sequences, which I thought were done better than in TCoC, or were at least more believable/coherent in their magic. And don’t get me wrong: I didn’t dislike the book, as critical as I sound. The prose is beautiful, the plot is great and when the religion/magic is unmoored of its historical roots, it’s really appealing. If Ista were only less of a psychopath, I would have liked the whole thing a lot more.