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The Paladin    by C. J. Cherryh order for
by C. J. Cherryh
Order:  USA  Can
Baen, 2002 (1988)

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* * *   Reviewed by Wesley Williamson

C. J. Cherryh is an astonishingly prolific writer (close to 70 books published by my last count), yet maintains a surprisingly high standard of excellence. She is best known for her various science fiction series - Chanur, The Faded Sun, Foreigner, Cyteen and so on - but has also written some good fantasy. In fact, the term 'speculative fiction' could have been coined to describe much of her work.

The Paladin is a case in point. Although it is set in a fantastic country and culture where gods, and particularly demons, lurk closely round every corner, the story is worked out without a hint of magic and as realistically as any historical romance. Shoka had been swordmaster to the old Emperor. On the Emperor's death, his heir, who is weak and timid, turns to his corrupt Regent and permits the execution of his own wife, and various former advisors of his father. Pursued by the Regent's troops, Shoka barely escapes after killing all of them. He retires in disgust, hoping to find peace as a hermit in the remote mountains near the border of the Empire, with only his warhorse for company.

His peace is disturbed by a young peasant girl with a scarred face, who has made her way through a multitude of hazards from a distant province, after all of her family have been murdered by a crony of the Regent. She wants Shoka to take her on as an apprentice, and teach her a blademaster's skills so that she can return and kill the Lord responsible. The first half of the book reveals how she forces Shoka to reluctantly begin, and even more reluctantly, continue to teach her. He even hopes to seduce her into giving up her hopeless ambition, but she is as stubborn in resisting him as she is bent on learning fighting skills.

Eventually, when her training is complete, they both compromise. He decides to accompany her, though still hoping to make her change her mind, and she lets him sleep with her, hoping he will let her go on alone. The second half is straight adventure, as she and Shoka leave the mountains, acquiring allies and legends as they go. Shoka is at heart a conniving scoundrel, and he encourages the superstitious belief that the scarfaced girl is his personal demon, on a mission to free the Empire from the blood and corruption at its centre.

This is the only Cherryh novel that I can remember which could be called a romance, but it is still a romance armoured by her patented blend of tough-minded realism. The Paladin is one of the few books which rates even better on a second reading.

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