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.