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Helen Lowe on the Fantasy Heroines That Rock Her World: Ista from Lois McMaster Bujold’s PALADIN OF SOULS

HelenL2-1 (2)Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet, interviewer and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013 and Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night Series, Book Three) is forthcoming in January 2016. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.

The Fantasy Heroines That Rock My World

by Helen Lowe

Fantasy Heroines That Rock My World: Ista

In “Fantasy Heroines That Rock My World” I am shining a spotlight on my favorite Fantasy heroines, not only revealing who they are but why I believe they kick butt and take names as characters.

Today’s heroine is Ista, from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin Of Souls—and as soon as I read the book, I instantly enrolled her in the ranks of my favorite “fantastic heroines.” Not only is Ista the book’s main character, which is still relatively rare in mainstream, adult SFF; even more rarely, she is a middle-aged woman. And although a dowager queen, she is also a woman with a troubled past, where the failure of her magic power resulted in a long period of madness, as well as death and disaster for others. No light burden for any person to carry.

At the time Paladin of Souls opens, the wider implications of these backstory events have largely been resolved through another (standalone) book, The Curse Of Chalion. With her daughter (The Curse Of Chalion’s Iselle) ruling as queen, and her mother recently dead, Ista is left to face the stark question:

“Who am I, when I am not surrounded by the walls of my life? When they have all fallen into dust and rubble?”

Ista’s sympathy as a character is grounded in her realism. At one level she is facing what we recognize as “empty nest” syndrome; she is also dealing with lack of personal confidence (as well as the confidence of others) and self-doubt arising from a prolonged period of mental illness. As readers, we recognize her very human longing for something more—which drives her, in the time-honored manner of Fantasy protagonists, to embark on a road trip. In Ista’s case, her pilgrimage is undertaken not from religious fervor, or to fulfill either destiny or doom, but as a socially acceptable means of flight, or respite, from a suffocating and barren existence.

The fate of the world may not be at stake, but as it turns out, the short to medium-term peace of Chalion may well be. Ista does not intend to get caught up in events, but they overtake her anyway. When danger first threatens, she keeps her head, realizing that the greatest danger is not to herself—since a noblewoman (even if she is not recognized as the dowager queen) will almost certainly be ransomed—but to an accompanying cleric:

“Ista might cry ransom for herself and the Daughter’s men. But a divine of the fifth god would be treated a heretic and defiled…She lashed her horse forward beside Ferda’s and shouted, “The divine—he must not be taken!”

As circumstances unfold, Ista is forced to reexamine the failure of her former magic, which led to both disaster and madness. She does not do this gladly, however, but humanly:

“She cursed the gods methodically, in five couplets, in ferocious parody of an old childhood bedtime prayer, rolled over and wrapped her pillow over her head.”

“Why me?” may be the classic plaint of the epic hero, but Ista has more justification than most for resisting the call—although in the end she does act, again from empathy and compassion for others, rather than a desire to redeem herself. Her decision is more powerful, too, for knowing that she has a choice:

“I could run away. No one else here can, but I could. If I chose to.”

The fact that she chooses otherwise, despite considerable risk to herself, reveals all readers need to know of Ista’s courage and integrity. The other aspect of Ista’s personality that I really like is that, middle-aged woman, dowager queen, and—as it turns out—demonhunter, or not, she is also portrayed as sexual, with a natural and healthy interest in both love and sex.

“He should be in bed, she decided. Hers, by preference.”

In short, Ista is a far from stock female character in the Fantasy pantheon. It’s not at all surprising that she rocks my world.

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