Moment of shame as I admit I have never read anything by C.J. Cherryh! I picked up a whole stack of her paperbacks from the used bookstore; I decided to start with The Paladin because the internet told me that it was a good standalone work. No lies! Now, it took me over a week to read this little story because I was distracted and, perhaps, not in the mood for exactly this type of tale. Nevertheless, while I didn’t love this book, it showcased Cherryh’s writing skills in a way that left me wanting to read more of her work.
Shoka, once Lord Saukendar and swordmaster to the Emperor, lives in self-imposed exile on a mountain on the outskirts of Chiyaden while the young Emperor continues to be overshadowed by a tyrannical regent. His peace is disturbed by Taizu, a peasant girl on the cusp of womanhood. She has crossed the empire in search of the fabled Saukendar and is determined to have him teach her the art of the sword, despite her unfortunate gender and Shoka’s own desire for solitude. Taizu’s goal is no less than the killing of Gitu, the Emperor, and Ghita, the Regent. As you might imagine, she gradually wins over Shoka, but things don’t quite turn out the way either would expect.
I loved the start of this book. It feels a bit like an ancient legend, you know? Determined, plucky youth convinces the grouchy old master to take her on so that she can train for her revenge. All the ingredients are here. Cherryh’s style, at least in this novel, is incredibly lush and descriptive—the dialogue is sparse, but she spends a lot of time on setting, as well as on what’s going through Shoka’s head. The narrator is quick to highlight that Shoka is past his prime, both in age and in political will. Similarly, Taizu’s revenge plot is absolutely bananapants—something Shoka never fails to point out to her—and the way Cherryh handles this later in the story is pretty good.
I could have done without all the lust on Shoka’s part. I have come to expect that from fantasy novels written by men, and perhaps from Tanya Huff, so this was a bit of a surprise. It’s not quite lechery, I suppose, on Shoka’s part, but it just weirds me out, the way it goes beyond addressing the elephant in the room and turns into a kind of fixation for him.
Nevertheless, the first half of the book is quite the training montage. The second half turns into what I can only describe as military fantasy, and that’s where the novel starts to lose me. I had trouble following some of what was going on—there were a lot of names of people and places, a lot of discussion of tactics and difficult situations, and not a lot of moments for our protagonists to pause and work things out. When we finally get to meet the Emperor and his evil Regent, it feels hollow because we don’t really know either of these people. They were just names to us, and then their encounter with Shoka and Taizu is all too brief.
At the same time, as I said earlier, I really respect Cherryh’s storytelling chops. Even as I felt my interest flagging, I could see the wonderful story structure and thematic elements at play. The way that Shoka must shift back into his old persona of Saukendar, how his legend precedes him as he and Taizu travel towards the capital, his awareness that this is a double-edged sword that might get others killed … it’s very good. It’s a slick commentary on the issues with placing our faith in legends who turn out just to be men—with all the fallibility and foibles of age!
I doubt The Paladin will sit with me for a long time. We’ll see how I feel about the other Cherryh novels I pick up in the months to come! But it’s an example of how a novel can still be a solid work of story even when it doesn’t personally grab me the way I want.