Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Review: Paladin's Faith by T. Kingfisher

Come for the plot drama, stay for the intriguing developments in fantasy world theology.

I am, unapologetically, a slightly over the top fan of Ursula Vernon (whether as herself or under her T. Kingfisher pen name), and this series particularly. So believe me when I say that I am coming from a place of love and fondness here... but this one isn't quite up to standard, compared to the rest of the series.

Or... well. That's not quite true. But it all depends exactly what you're reading the series for.

The Saint of Steel is a series of novels following the paladins of a god who died - suddenly, inexplicably - and left them without a holy hand on the wheel of their berserker abilities. Each novel follows one of the seven paladins in trying to pick up the pieces of their life, identity and faith in the wake of this catastrophe, and find how to move on with things. Generally through the medium of finding a romantic partner. Because they are very much romantasy books.

And, for the first three, the romance has been GREAT. They've often gone in different direction - the mutual safety and recovery from trauma in Stephen and Grace's story, or the finding of someone who just Gets how to be the world the same as you like Istvhan and Clara, or just the very intense feelings of Galen and Piper. But if she's anything, Ursula Vernon is a master of writing people being people, and that is exactly what you need to craft these relatable, hopeful and enthralling romantic partnerships.

When we get to Paladin's Faith however... it just isn't quite working out. Our protagonist, Shane, is the most upright, the most po-faced, the most earnestly good boy of the paladins we've met so far (which is saying something), and his love interest is Marguerite, who we know from previous stories to be a spy operating under a false name, gregarious, charming and mysterious... and prone to disappear when her cover seems like it might be blown. This is the setup for an opposites-attract style situation, something which can, and often does, work really well. You can get some fun tension, some great chemistry, some banter, and everyone can have a great time. Here... ehhhhh not so much. And I don't think it's a problem inherent to the characters themselves. There are plenty of moments of potentially wonderful setup for the exact story you expect to see, of Shane surprising Marguerite by solving problems precisely by being a stick in the mud, and for Marguerite to turn out to have a total heart of gold and win him over not just with her confident charm but inherent goodness. It's all right there.

But... but. There's the critical stage that in previous novels Vernon has mastered so well, of the characters really getting to know each other and going from "oh he's pretty" to "oh damn I have actual feelings", and it's a stage that covers a tonne of character work on both sides. It was glorious with Stephen and Grace, full of mutual pining and idiocy and shenanigans, and it made me love them both. And it's been the same - albeit in different circumstances and with different styles of romance/characterisation - in the other two. But here... we get the beginnings of it. We get all the hints, the setup, the "wow he's pretty" and "I should maybe not stare at her" and the beginning glimmers of them each beginning to appreciate the other as a whole person... and then boom, sex, suddenly high stakes and now we're in love apparently? We skipped about five steps in the normal process, and it leaves the romance feeling hollow and weak. And when that's between two very different characters, it means you end the story thinking "well, maybe this won't be happily ever after, maybe just happily for now". Which is really sad, when you know how great the others were, and when you had such hopes for what this might be.

I do wonder slightly if the problem might be that we looped back to an existing character for the love interest, rather than introduce someone new. We already know Marguerite - she was a reasonably prominent character in the first book - and so we don't need to do the same groundwork for her that we did for Grace or for Clara. And while Piper in book 3 was also a repeat, his page time in the previous stories was almost negligible. Whereas Marguerite was a friend, someone with real page time and presence. And so you either have to retread that groundwork and leave the reader going "yes yes I know all this" or move on assuming they do know all that... and risk that it leaves things a bit patchy. There's a balance to strike between the two, and I just don't think it's quite been managed here. She needs more depth than she's given, and clearly has that depth, she's a really strong character concept... but she just doesn't quite bring it all to the page emotionally in the way that the other love interests have. It possibly doesn't help that her spy background means a lot of secrets that aren't and can't be shared with the protagonist, and so there's a tricky thing of trying to work in an honest perspective on her interiority without having too much of an information mismatch between her perspective chapters and Shane's.

But, for me, we end up too much on the side of "no information", and a lot of who she is, where she's come from, is obscured from us. And however understandable the reasons are for this, it makes her just less approachable, less comprehensible as a character. When it's a two person, two perspective romance all the way through, you really need both parties to be pulling their weight and being fully realised vehicles for that romance. And ultimately, I think Marguerite is falling short simply because we cannot fully know her.

Maybe we just needed more time with her, more time for her to share more about herself, even in her thoughts, if not in dialogue. Because we didn't, and her arc, her romance with Shane really did end up feeling less substantial, and far more rushed than the previous three.

But... (and this loops us back to me "not quite" point earlier) there is a reason for all this. Not so much in-plot, but in the meta sense, there is something taking up all that space and time where romance setup might be, something which made me cackle, scream, angrily message friends and make sad noises at my cat in turn. And where the romance may be disappointing... this... this wasn't.

We got some honest to goodness, sexy sexy (in the very metaphorical sense) plot, with a side-helping of some totally A grade world-building. My thoughts about the entire theology of this world have been upended! Shane got a character arc and then some! The bittersweetness of it all! The irony! The joy! The terrible decisions and inevitable consequences and incredibly satisfying deus ex machina! It had everything.

Now before you get excited, at least on her Patreon, Vernon confirmed when this book was released that, no, very sorry, but we're not going to find out more about the Saint of Steel's death in this one. So it's not that. But it is sort of adjacent... or related, I suppose. And more critically, it feels like it's setting up something that may become the series end game. So it is big, big stuff. And it is incredibly well-handled, being at turns both sad and joyful, and really digging into some character themes for Shane specifically and the paladins as we know them in general that ends up being deeply rewarding. In some ways, I'd argue that this part of the story is the best the series has got so far (though in that is has to tangle with the somewhat creepy murder plot that stretches over from the first book into the second and third, which is also really solid). 

And so it comes down to what the reader is reading it for.

If you're reading this series purely for the romance? Well, I can't say it's bad, because it's not. But it won't quite reach the level the others took you to, however well it seems to be setting things up. You may come out disappointed.

But if you have any interest in the wider plot, or the characters of the paladins themselves, and their ongoing healing and growth arcs? Even if the romance is disappointing, the rest of the story may well make up for it and more than. And the ending will have you sending messages to friends that are just a string of exclamation and question marks... at least in my experience.

The only other thing I have to say against it is that the rest of the entries into the series could, theoretically, work as standalones. This one absolutely could not. There's too much digging into the overarching plot, there'd be too many implications missed. But when the rest of the series is as good as this one is, that doesn't feel like awfully much of a downside.

So while it's not the 10/10 some of the other Saint of Steel books have been, there's more than enough substance, drama and foreshadowing here to be going on with, and character development for Shane (and a couple of the others) in absolute spades. Once again, I finish a new installment in the series and find myself desperately waiting for the next one, mere days after release. Ursula Vernon remains the master of this exquisite torture, and I thank her for it.


The Math

Highlights: worldbuilding that will make you do a yell then think about fantasy theology for the next three hours (positive), laugh out loud character moments, the shocking and much bemoaned absence of a hundred gallons of horse piss

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Paladin's Faith, T. Kingfisher, [2023, Red Wombat Studio]

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