The Paladin is a stand-alone novel set in the China of an alternative world. It’s more of an alternative history than a fantasy — there are no mythical creatures or magic here, although superstitions of both remain. The story falls into two parts. In the first, a stubborn girl seeking vengeance for her murdered family arrives at the mountain home of an exiled hermit who was the greatest warlord in the Empire prior to the death of the old emperor and the takeover by an evil regent. The girl wears him down, and he agrees to teach her swordsmanship and so on, convinced that she will eventually tire and lose hope in her foolish quest. Instead, she perseveres, and he finds himself growing fond of her. Over a two-year span, she becomes a promising pupil; he finds his defenses against the world he left behind crumbling… and how much he now needs her.
In the second part, the two leave the mountain and begin their desperate quest to assassinate the evil regent. It’s enough to say that there are no surprises as the tale lumbers towards its anti-climax. In fact, I recommend stopping once they leave the mountain — the development of their bond is the true story here, and frankly, the second part is tedious. Why so?
M: Mapping. The political and strategic references that arise in their quest are so convoluted and filled with names and rulers’ names that you can’t understand what’s going on unless you keep flipping back and forth to the map at the front.
S: Swordplay. The pair train and train, and the girl learns wonderful fighting patterns and how to make a stronger man’s sword slide off her own, and yet, when they finally get into fights, the action is basically described by the swordmaster’s count of bodies: “one-two, three, four and five.” The training scenes are far superior.
G: Grammar. Perhaps it was intentionally done to give the story a “different” (Asian?) feel, but the grammar/style is very unorthodox and often forces the re-reading of passages. Dashes, italics and fragments are everywhere (often thought-fragments), slowing the scan constantly. (I tend to read quickly, but reading this book was often like running through a rice paddy — in ankle weights.)
Finally, most of the story is told from the man’s viewpoint, and he’s simply not likeable. Of course, a character doesn’t have to be likeable, but his constant irritability and “damn” this-es and thats ultimately prove tedious. (If he is a paladin or samurai, he surely missed his etiquette training.) His repetitive lusting for the girl — though very realistic given the time/place context and often well described — may also seem creepy to some readers. (He’s forty; she’s sixteen.) His retired warhorse, in fact, is the most pleasant character present — and I can’t understand why we’re never even given one look at the man through the girl’s eyes.
The first part of the novel is worth reading, especially if you like realistic characters and Oriental culture. Beyond that, I can only recommend this book as a library loan.