Review: The Paladin

The Paladin by C. J. Cherryh

A one star review? I’m just as surprised as y’all are, quite frankly. I never thought my first one star review would go to a C. J. Cherryh, a recommendation from the magnificent Jo Walton, author of Tooth and Claw, and a book beloved by lots of people. I was quite looking forward to The Paladin, and I was delighted to find that my local library had it. I enjoyed parts of it, and I’m certainly not giving up on Cherryh just yet. But my requirement for a one star review is a book that’s offended me on some level, and lo, The Paladin offends me.

The Paladin takes place in a fantastical version of medieval China, Chiyaden. After the old Emperor passed away and the tyrannical Lord Ghita became the true power behind the throne of the heir, Lord Saukendar fled an attempt on his life to live peacefully in the mountains as the hermit Shoka. But his reputation precedes him, and boys from all over seek him to train them in the art of combat. All are turned away. But one day, a girl named Taizu comes to demand he teach her combat, for she has vowed to murder Lord Gitu for his massacre of her village. Because she will not go away, Shoka decides to humor her until the inevitable day she will give up. But Taizu never gives up, and through her simple quest for revenge, Shoka is swept back up into the politics of an Empire in the wrong hands.

There’s a lot of good in The Paladin; the action, the plot, and the characters. As you might know, I adore prickly heroines–I’m not even sure why. And Taizu is plenty prickly, a scarred peasant girl of few words hellbent on revenge and dismissing all other courses. Shoka, as an aging man regretting the past but compelled by his interest in Taizu to fight on, is nicely complex. The plot is fairly straightforward, once Shoka and Taizu get on the road–it evolves from revenge plot to an attempt to remove the Evil Chancellor, though I would have liked to see the new Emperor as more active, instead of the fairly passive fool we get. The action is quite nice, as Taizu learns the art of combat and grows better and better at it. As far as worldbuilding is concerned, The Paladin is low fantasy–essentially, just an alternate world with rules like our own. It’s clearly a thinly veiled version of medieval China, down to the culture and the court. It’s a nice change of pace from the traditional European fantasy setting, but it doesn’t exactly stand out on its own.

But all of this can’t save The Paladin from the cripplingly flawed power dynamic between Taizu and Shoka, especially when they get involved sexually. When Taizu arrives at the mountain, she makes it absolutely clear that she will not sleep with Shoka, despite his increasing interest in her, time and time again. But after Shoka suggests that her supposed fear of men (and thus, sex) is hurting her combat, she sleeps with him. While she quite clearly consents, the fact that Shoka links her desire to not have sex with him to a flaw in her fighting, the one thing she focuses on and the one thing he has authority over her in, feels very manipulative to me. Later on, she explicitly states that she sleeps with him to lose her fear, which at least gives us her motivation, but doesn’t make their situation any less awkward. There’s even a period where Shoka, having feelings for her, offers to marry her, and essentially wears her down until she agrees for both his safety and her mission. I don’t want to make it sound like Taizu doesn’t have feelings for him, but they feel much less intense than Shoka’s feelings for her. The power dynamic between a teacher and a student that makes such things very complicated is never truly addressed, and between that and the fact that Shoka essentially manipulates her into sex the first time, I was flat-out disgusted. The gender politics aren’t much better. There’s a fine balance between period and off-putting when it comes to archaic attitudes in historical fiction, and Shoka falls on the wrong side. He occasionally considers raping Taizu to cure her of her single-minded quest in the beginning. The entire novel, save the beginning and the ending, are all written from Shoka’s point of view–he is supposed to be our hero, but my heroes don’t consider raping the heroines, quite frankly. It not only put me off Shoka and their relationship, but the entire book. Their relationship is presented as a decent, if rough, relationship, but the power and gender issues are right under the surface, souring the entire novel. I can’t shake the fact that Taizu’s last impression of him, her husband, is of a “conniving scoundrel”.

There’s more I could say–for instance, all of the unfortunate covers for The Paladin feature, strangely, white folk. But I strongly urge you to give The Paladin a miss and start elsewhere with C. J. Cherryh. I know I need to start over with her myself.

Bottom line: A refreshing setting and wonderfully prickly heroine cannot save The Paladin from the cripplingly flawed and completely unaddressed power dynamic between Taizu and Shoka as a couple. Let me put it this way–Shoka, Taizu’s master in the ways of combat, considers raping Taizu, his student, towards the beginning to cure her of her devotion to her vow of revenge. My heroes don’t consider raping their heroines. Start with C. J. Cherryh elsewhere.

I rented this book from the public library.

16 thoughts on “Review: The Paladin

  1. Eek – that’s horrifying, and very disappointing. I was hoping that this was a very early novel of hers or something, but I see it was written just one year before Rusalka, which I remember enjoying :\

  2. The cover looks very seventies-eighties. It is an seventies-eighties-era book? If so, I might see the context of the super-creepy sexual relations; for whatever reason, many “genre” novels I read from the period — thrillers, mysteries, and especially romance novels — have EXTREMELY disturbing depictions of sex and gender relations. As in, women get raped and THEN fall in love with their rapists, not to mention icky depictions of LGBT people.

    I kind of wonder if it had to do with a response to the change in the social order. I mean, I always see thriller, mysteries, and romances as pretty telling of what’s important to regular society.

    Such a pity, because the concept and heroine look fantastic. 😦

    • It was released in 1988. Because it’s specifically historical fantasy, I don’t think it’s as reflective of the times as contemporary set works, but then, nothing is created in a vacuum. It’s just such a shame.

  3. I feel for you and your disappointment. I had heard great things about this author and was shocked upon reading this book review. Now, horrific acts (like rape in this case) can be used to great narrative effect when they are necessary to the plot and true to the character. This contemplated rape, however, just seems arbitrary and grossly (in both senses of the word) unnecessary. Why not show Taizu how revenge destroys a person? Why not provide troubling examples of how killing or maiming stays with a person forever? Both seem to be effective ways of disuading a person from all-consuming revenge. Instead he contemplates raping her? Most disturbing, pushes one’s ability to suspend disbelief firmly onto cracked ice, and certainly smakes of shock tactics.

    • Exactly! If the point is to have Shoka contemplate ways to dissuade her from her quest, there are plenty of options that do not turn their relationship into the grossly unbalanced beast it becomes. I’m not giving up on Cherryh yet, but this was certainly a horrible introduction to her.

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  5. Really interesting to read this. I’ve read a bunch of Cherryh books, and I think she’s one of the really great sci-fi/fantasy writers of our time. Not brilliant, but definitely 90th percentile.

    In most of the books of hers I’ve read, she explores power relationships, and that often includes sexual relationships. I remember reading her Hugo award winner, Cyteen, and getting maybe 50 pages before feeling a little uncomfortable with the way a superior (in this case a woman) was manipulating and even abusing an employee sexually. A while later, I restarted the book, and was glad I did. It and its sequel are certainly on my “best of” lists for a lot of things.

    Not having read Paladin, I can’t say whether it’s the same sort of thing or not. But this is my sense of Cherryh: she’s forward-thinking about homosexuality, and has written very stable and productive same-gender couples from early on in her career. She also treats sex as one of the tools that people use in order to achieve their goals. It’s a little cynical, but I’m not sure it’s entirely off-base. I don’t think she very often tries to create wholly admirable characters. If anything, I think she might deliberately be trying to show how bad people can do good things, and good people can do bad things. And while some authors would make out a sexual deviant to be wholly evil. Cherryh definitely seeks to have very rounded characters, such that people you don’t identify with in one sense can still have other positive attributes. I mean, can we talk about how much our country idolizes JFK? And he was basically a rapist, many times over, if you look at the memoir of an aide he did some very sordid things to.

    This isn’t to justify this novel, or even Cherryh generally. I think there’s room to be critical of her tendencies, no matter how deliberate or thoughtful she is with them. But I DO think that there are layers to uncover when thinking about how characters and their actions are represented.

    • My problem with The Paladin lies in the fact that there’s a huge disconnect between how Cherryh tries to present this relationship—as a decent if rough one—and the actual facts of it—Shoka tells Taizu that she can’t succeed in her training unless she has sex with him. Had she presented it as it was and explored that dynamic, the novel wouldn’t have offended me; what offended me was the unquestioned nature of it.

      From what you’re telling me here, it looks like this novel is a misstep—and, as a queer woman, I’m grateful that she represents queer relationships well. I had been looking forward to Cherryh, but this has given me great pause. Could you recommend me a good starting place to pick her back up?

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