Thursday, July 7, 2022

Review: The Saint of Steel Series by T. Kingfisher

An extremely cosy series (with murders), adorable romance, and something of a thesis on how to make paladins amazing.

What happens when a god dies, but His berserker paladins are left behind without a hand on the holy reins? If T. Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel series is anything to go by, the answers are: angst, romance, lawyers, angst, tutting, solving murders, angst, exasperated bishops, angst, magical morticians and a lot of pragmatic, down to earth do-gooding. Each book (three currently published but more promised) follows one of the seven remaining paladins of the Saint of Steel as they rebuild their lives with each other, find love, and… yes, angst a bit.

This may seem like a lot of angst – and in many ways it kind of is – but unlike most books you could quantify that way, while the paladins in question may do a lot of moping, guilting and general being sad and righteous all over the place, the tone of the books runs so contrary to it, that it never threatens to overwhelm… anything. They are, in fact, surprisingly jolly books, that just happen to have some paladins in them who are slowly together overcoming a serious combined psychological trauma and literal crisis of faith. And those two things shouldn’t marry up neatly, really. They don’t naturally fit together at all. But the key thing that makes this series absolutely work is that what Kingfisher does superbly well is people, and particularly, she never lets the reader lose sight of the fact that here characters are people. What this means is that for every dramatic moment, or every soulful bit of angsting, there are several more where we are reminded that they need clean socks, have to eat porridge that isn’t particularly nice and have a bad back when they’ve been overdoing the exercise. Kingfisher manages to bring to bear the full scope of human from the sublime to the mundane, and by revelling in that contrast, and highlighting the mundane parts, manages to humanise a character archetype that is all too easy to turn into something of a holy robot.

This delightful mundanity and emphasis on the realistic little details of actual humans is what makes her romances work, and all the more so because all of the current three aren’t the type of characters who might normally get a romance plot. Two of them are a little older than your traditional heroines, in their thirties, with experience of love and loss and the world before they reach us, and the third is a mortician, which I’m not led to believe is a traditionally sexy profession, and moreover someone with some very particular concerns when it comes to his partners and his life generally. And because they’re not 19 year olds with big protagonist energy, they all bring quirks and problems with them to their relationships that need to be overcome. Not dramatic problems, not “we are the heirs to rival kingdoms and our parents will never understand our love” problems. But problems like the shadow of a past relationship affecting their self-esteem and self-perception, or being settled into a life that might not accommodate a traditional relationship and cohabitation. Or, because this is fantasy series after all, being a were-bear. But even so magical a problem as that gets touched by very human concerns and made all the more relatable for it.

All this is to say that T. Kingfisher writes characters you can imagine walking out into the real world and being genuine, fleshed out people you could have a cup of tea with, rather than larger than life heroes, all the edges polished off until you have something otherworldly.

Which is a fantastic way to handle paladins as a class. As it happens, they are my favourite D&D class by far, but also one of the ones that I think struggle the most when it comes to characterisation. How do you take someone who is meant to be the righteous hand of god in the world and make them feel like a person? How do you reconcile humanity with the literal touch of the divine? And how do you make someone likeable who exists in a world of black and white, good and bad, holy smiting of the sinners? They are a class that wants to defy nuance, which simultaneously makes them unlikeably inflexible in their dealings with others, as well unflatteringly two dimensional – I can’t even fault someone who says they don’t like paladins because they’re boring goody two shoeses… most of the time, they’re not wrong. And those times when they do get deeper character development, it is often centred around their angst, their sadness that they cannot live up to the goodness/holiness/whatever-else-ness their god has imbued them with, are too weak, human and grey to embody their shining holy purpose, and so are a terrible, flawed person and we should feel very sad for them. Which often falls flat.

T. Kingfisher has solved these problems in a couple of ways. Firstly, she doesn’t try to deny them. She herself calls out her paladins for being inflexible, she eyerolls them in the text for a tendency to martyrdom, and she points the reader very much at the parts where their humanity and their divine duty come into conflict. She never denies the traditional problems we might see with them, and instead revels in them, and then makes them funny. Not, for the most part, laugh-out-loud-jokes funny, but instead the sort of wry, under-the-breath-chuckle funny that you get in Banks’ Culture novels, for instance, and this humanises them more than anything sincere could really manage. But critically, the tone of the books always stays the right side of laughing with them, not at them - there’s a terrible fondness to it all, like teasing a favourite cousin. They’re never a joke, but they are sometimes funny.

Secondly, she lets them fail, at least some of the time. They make mistakes, especially in their personal lives, and then they have to do the work to fix them, and something about having to apologise for an embarrassing social faux pas really seems to undercut a lot of the drama.

Thirdly, she lets them be self-aware. Not always, and not all of them, but some of her paladins are capable of looking at their comrades and despairing, and this somehow sneaks you into immersion in the world, because it makes the exasperation you might be feeling at them part of the setting. It helps too that they are surrounded by some of the most un-paladin-like characters it is possible to imagine, who all collectively sigh and pinch their noses at the noble and martyrly antics that unfold.

Which brings me onto the Church of the White Rat, which is the lodestone around which this series, the Clocktaur War duology and the currently standalone Swordheart all revolve, and the worldbuilding more broadly. In her priests and lawyers sacrosanct, T. Kingfisher gives us an incredibly hopeful bit of religious worldbuilding. While they all seem to be incredibly down to earth and pragmatic people, taken as a whole, the Church of the White Rat is a statement of goodness in the world, of doing the job in front of you and making the best of things, of defending people who are weak simply because they deserve to be defended. As the point to which all the characters in the stories come back, it is a brilliant nexus focussing the narrative of the series into Doing Good, not on a grand, demon-battling scale (as in the Clocktaur War duology), but on a far more prosaic level. We see the paladins escorting healers in dodgy neighbourhoods, helping deal with flood damage and looking for mysterious murderers. Instead of the usual grand concerns of a fantasy series, Kingfisher pulls us closer to home, and to issues that would have been just as present in the generic medieval European fantasy world the series approximately inhabits. Shelter and health, justice and legal aid, food and safety. And while this might seem like it would do nothing to undercut the boring, good-two-shoes paladin argument, something about having them deal with much more mortal concerns does work in their favour, and makes an excellent counterbalance for when they do have to do some smiting. They’re not just concerned with sinners and evil. They also care about people.

And yes, there is some smiting, because they wouldn’t be paladins if they didn’t get their swords out occasionally, but by using it sparingly, and grounding the characters as people first and holy warriors later, Kingfisher gives it more meaning when it finally does come around. That and she understands that good pacing can sometimes mean only giving us the bit of detail a fight scene needs to keep the plot moving, more than every sword swing and step.

The closest comparison I can think of to the Saint of Steel series, and the world of the White Rat as a whole, is the late Sir Terry. It’s a big comparison, not one to use lightly, but I think that in her humour, her worldbuilding and her skill at giving us characters who are intensely human, T. Kingfisher is doing something that feels extremely familiar to readers of the Discworld books. They’re not the same, of course, but they both have the ability to leave a reader feeling incredibly comforted.

Thus far, we’re three books in, and the stories seem to have settled into a formula of paladin-meets-love-interest, plus shenanigans, with some overarching plot. That said, the ending of the third book, and what we know about some of the paladins who’ve yet to be the focus, suggests that this pattern may be broken, at least a little, in what’s to come. I’m hopeful this is the case, because for all that what we’ve got so far has been lovely, seven books, as the series is projected to be, might be too much for it to remain in a single pattern.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10 

Bonuses: +1 excellent representation of realistic romances

Penalties: -1 slightly formulaic at the moment (though with hope that that might change in future novels)

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10


T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Grace [Red Wombat Studio, 2020]

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Strength [Red Wombat Studio, 2021]

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Hope [Red Wombat Studio, 2021]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea