I listened to PALADIN OF SOULS on audio and I'm not sure if that affected my perception of Bujold's prose. She's the sort of writer who can say really interesting things without being show-offy about it. Smart, thoughtful, unexpected... but all knit into the fabric of the book without any lumps or snags.
I admire this so much.
But I think the audio format left me more aware of her verbal tics and less able to pause and soak up the brilliance. She wrote "[person] was [verbing]" sentences so often I started to flinch.
Still, the book is marvelous. It's a sequel to THE CURSE OF CHALION and so much of PALADIN's complicated backstory is explained in THE CURSE OF CHALION that I can't recommend reading it as a standalone. Luckily, THE CURSE OF CHALION is also a great read.
The protagonist of PALADIN OF SOULS is Ista, the Dowager Royina of Chalion. Her daughter is Royina (Queen) now & the country is in good hands, but for most of her adult life, Ista was so crippled by trauma, grief, and a close encounter with a goddess (always a mixed blessing on Chalion) that she was assumed to be mad. Even by her own family, who caged and coddled her rather than trying to understand or help.
In PALADIN OF SOULS, Ista has had enough. She wants to escape her minders; they have the best of intentions, but they treat her like a child, and she is sick of it. But for a woman like her, noble and wealthy and well into middle-age, there are few routes to adventure.
She decides to go on pilgrimage. This seems unobjectionable, though her minders certainly try. But she goes over their heads, gets permission, and as soon as she has a route planned she starts testing the limits on her behavior, doing reconnaissance: what can she get away with, how can she assert her independence? She's patient and strategic and soon enough, she's traveling along with an entourage that follows her lead, takes her orders.
Of course things soon go awry. Ista's party is run down by raiders, they are scattered and captured, and things go from there. There are handsome men, long-buried secrets, tortured family dynamics, meddling gods, female friendships, demons and possession, dangerous magic.
And all the while Ista is coming into her own. She is increasingly confident, increasingly formidable, able to shape events to suit her, without ever becoming a different KIND of woman. She's not going to strap on armor and ride out to do battle. She's not that kind of heroine. But she does save the day.
This review turned out to be longer than I'd thought it would be. Oh well. Conclusion: Bujold is worth reading. Start with CURSE OF CHALION. Recommended!