Paladin of Souls - Lois McMaster Bujold Ista, the protagonist of this novel, breaks one of the rules of fiction that have always bugged me: she wants to go on her adventure. She is not a reluctant hero – a tired trope in fantasy – but rather one burning with the desire to escape her ordered, pampered life. She wants the road, wherever it leads.
She is as far from a standard fantasy heroine as it is possible to get: a 40-years-old woman, dissatisfied and riddled with guilt, yearning for something she can’t name. She feels herself to be a failed mother and a failed daughter, a failed wife and a failed royina (queen). Even a failed saint, although in this, she blames the gods more than herself.
In her youth, she zealously obeyed the gods’ guidance but misread their convoluted message, with disastrous results. Her passionate love for her children had led her towards the greatest criminal blunder. Now, she curses the gods, defies them. Their blighted puzzles are not for her anymore. She wants life without the gods’ interference, an escape without responsibility. Like Cazaril in the first book of the series, she desires peace.
A complex, contradictory character in a sophisticated, multifaceted world, Ista is searching: for freedom or release or understanding, she is not sure. She is a rebel but a quiet one. There are neither loud slogans nor proudly flapping flags in her rebellion. A woman battered by countless disappointments, lonely and bitter, she creeps toward her kismet by tiny, blind steps. And the first step is to escape her loving handlers, who want to wrap her in cotton inside a guided cage of safety. Tired of their cloying protection, Ista grabs the first chance to flee her home.
But her road from resisting the gods to embracing them, from her prison of self-doubts towards self-discovery is as full of hazards and sharp rocks as her physical pilgrimage.
And the gods of the land hound her relentlessly. She is their chosen paladin, and as such, irreplaceable. No matter how much she wishes to avoid their poisonous attention, they stir her unequivocally towards her destiny.
Bujold paints her gods not as loving and forgiving divinities but as manipulative and aloof beings, uncaring about their human tools. They love their worshippers as a shepherd loves his sheep: a source of his nourishment and an instrument of his income. And Ista has no illusions about the gods’ glamorous regard.
“If they [the gods] use you up in their works, they have no more interest in you than a painter in a crusted and broken brush, to be cast aside and replaced.” She hesitated. “If they still lash and drive you, you may be sure it means they still want something from you. Something they haven’t got yet.”

And in another place: “The gods give no gifts without hooks embedded.”

But despite her cynical opinion of the gods, in the end, Ista can’t swerve from the road they put her on. If she does, too many will suffer, and she can’t allow that: her soul is too big, her love for her land too embedded in her heart. Even though she considers herself ‘damaged goods,’ marred by darkness, she finally acquiesces to the role the gods (or rather the author) had mapped for her. And with her consent comes self-assurance. She finally knows who she is and what she is supposed to be doing.
“… the gods did not desire flawless souls, but great ones. I think that very darkness is where the greatness grows from, as flowers from the soil. I’m not sure, in fact, if greatness can bloom without it.”

Ista plays such a huge role in this novel that the rest – the other characters, the scenery, the romantic slant, the armed conflict – all pale in comparison. I enjoyed getting to know this beautiful and willful woman, this reserved and frustrated former queen, with her unplumbed depth and her steely determination to do the right things against all odds. Watching her, rooting for her to succeed, to win her man and defeat her enemies, was a privilege and a pleasure.