This one sauntered up my to-read shelves with quite some anticipation attached: a loose sequel to _The Curse of Chalion_ (which I enjoyed immensely), it was the target of rave reviews when it came out in 2004, and won the Hugo award for Best Novel that year.
_Curse of Chalion_ introduced us us to a fictional world that, while hardly unique - its touchstone remains, as so often in the genre, a romanticised high medieval Europe - certainly contains a number of intriguing elements. Chief among these, and integral to the story, was the intertwining of magic and religion. There is a quartet of gods, who correspond variously to the seasons and to stages of human life (e.g. the Daughter of Spring is linked with marriage), plus a black sheep of the divine family, a half-demon aptly named the Bastard. All have their own priesthoods, devotees and rituals - and all exert very real influence in the world, frequently to the detriment of their human instruments.
_Paladin_ picks up the story of a secondary player in the previous book - that of Ista, dowager royina of Chalion. The story begins with Ista, now 40, confronting her mother's death, and recovering from the madness that has gripped her for half her life (a legacy of the _Curse_ of the previous book's title). A new world of possibilities opens up before her - but her desire to finally experience those things denied her by her long illness is stifled by the confines of her social position and the demands of her over-protective family. In desperation, she seizes upon one of the few freedoms available to her: a pilgrimage. Along the way, of course, she finds that life, and the gods, haven't finished with her yet.
This is essentially, then, a coming-of-middle-age story - measured, thoughtful, and life-affirming. Where Paladin is less consistently surprising and gripping than its predecessor, the firm sense of character and touches of wit come to the fore (Ista's barbed exchanges with the Bastard are brilliant). Ista is a delightful character - warm, determined, intelligent, and with a great line in wry self-deprecation - and seeing her learn to make choices and take control of her life again is the most enjoyable aspect of the book.
The downside is that so much time is spent with Ista that we rather lose some of the other - equally interesting - characters along the way. Consequently, some of the pathos of the main plot is squandered, and the villainous side of things is shortchanged in the extreme. It is altogether a lighter read than its predecessor - deliberately so, since most of the emotional pain is in the past, and its themes are healing, acceptance, and choosing one's destiny... but this, coupled with the lack of diversity in the narrative viewpoints, did mean a slightly diminished impact, for this reader at least.
A little longer than it needs to be, less richly-woven than it perhaps could have been, _Paladin_ is still a highly enjoyable - and, at times, engagingly whimsical - read.