I highly recommend reading The Paladin by CJ Cherryh.
The hesitancy of the title is that while this story is set in a semi-fictional world, there are no fantasy elements at all. The people are superstitious, so belief in demons has some impact on the story…but there’s no magic to speak of.
When I originally read the story, I assumed the setting was a fictionalized Japan. Re-reading it, I’m not really sure why I thought that: the setting is quite obviously a fictionalized China.
Perhaps it was because the names are Asian sounding, but most are not valid Chinese syllables, so it is easy to assume Japan as a not-Chinese Asian. Perhaps it was because of the artistry of the martial arts, except that China also has such artistry.
In any case, regardless of the society C. J. Cherryh intended to copy, it could easily be ancient China, and is probably best understood that way. Although, to be honest, you don’t have to know a thing about China or Japan to enjoy the story.
The story is about the Emperor’s martial leader, exiled for disloyalty, but left alone as long as he remains in exile, and the girl who brings him back to the world. His martial leadership is never really explained: he’s a master swordsman, but also a tactical and strategic genius. Prior to the beginning of the novel, his only student was the boy Emperor; hints during the novel indicate he was possibly the top Imperial General, except that his fame is for prowess in fighting, and he never meets anyone considered an equal in the story. If he was supposed to be the most skilled bodyguard or champion of the Emperor, it wasn’t clear to me. So it seems more that he was taught all the martial arts, and his training and talent made him the best at all aspects, both personal fighting and leading small units and large armies.
I’ve said before that one things C. J. Cherryh gets better than any other writer I’ve ever seen, is language. She has always shown the difficulties in communicating in languages learned as second languages, and that plays some small part in this story. However, in The Paladin, Cherryh displays one of her other strengths: speed of communication and transportation.
One of my theories is that what makes a story work is uneven information flow. This can be seen in how ubiquitous cellphone coverage has had such a profound impact on film stories, including slasher flicks. They *must* include some explanation of why the characters can’t simply make a phone call; in truth, the conflict in most stories would be resolved with just a quick phone call. Time and Communication can create all sorts of conflicts that make a story good. Thus, C. J. Cherryh has included language differences as a disruptor of clear communication, and her FTL isn’t just “press a button and get there,” but rather a system of applying power to an advanced physics problem, so mass vs power causes different ships to make it to the next normal space location at different times; and so ships can race to get through FTL hops, and take risks to cut time, because presence and communication are the key to conflict and resolution. But those are her science fiction stories.
The speed of horses, the fatigue and endurance of humans, and the speed of gossip and misinformation, all play a significant role in this novel, and it is the better for it. If for no other reason you should read this novel to see how she handles the flow of information and people. It makes the world *feel* more real.
One other reason to read this book: realistic handling of feminist topics. It has never been confirmed, but I and others have assumed that C. J. Cherryh was the liberal science fiction writer (Sherry Atkinson) appearing on the Alien Assessment Team in Niven and Pournelle’s Footfall. I felt their characterization of her, for all that it was good enough to make it clear who they meant, was unfair. She may be (and probably is) Progressive, but she is no bleeding heart, naive liberal. Her books always display a clear and profoundly accurate grasp of human nature, vulnerabilities, and motivations. This book is no different.
In this book, a young girl wants to learn how to be a killing machine so she can get revenge on the man who killed her family and destroyed her home community. Cherryh handles is quite realistically: the girl doesn’t become an equal to a man; in fact, after a full year of training, the viewpoint character shows her how even a half-trained man could easily defeat her just by height, reach, and strength that will always outmatch her own, no matter how vigorously she trains. But then the sword master alters his training from the ideal set of skills to helping her minimize her weakness and maximize the strengths of her different set of abilities.
Cherryh may be a liberal/progressive/Leftist, but her stories often seem to arrive at the same conclusions conservatives do, and she has a gritty and insightful view of human nature that shines through.
On the other hand, her current epic series masterworks (the Foreigner series (at last count, 20 books and still going), is filled with the same Leftist Dowager political assumptions that mar the later works of Lois McMaster Bujold: “Conservative = bad,” “Conservatives are hypocrites or ignorant people who would be Progressive if they would just open their eyes,” “It’s okay to lie/cheat to obtain a Progressive societal win, because after the stupid Conservatives have Progressive societal advancements shoved down their throat, they’ll see it was right,” “the correctness of the Progressive cause justifies using dishonest and dishonorable methods on anyone who tries to stop us,” “There is absolutely no decent argument for opposing the Progressive agenda, so I won’t even let them make an argument in my book,” and “Progressives win simply because they are virtuous in their commitment to Social Progress.”
The change in her writing seemed to happen about the time she turned 52. McMasters Bujold became less enjoyable for me when she turned 51. Come to think of it, Heinlein became unreadable in his later life, as well. I disliked Stranger in a Strange Land, written when he was 54. In all three cases, there is a novel where their writing disappoints me, then a novel or two that are still good (in the older style? or in concert with the older themes?), and then within 3-4 years, their novels become wholly unreadable.
This has implications for my hopes of establishing a writing career, since I’m already extremely close to that age.
Anyway, The Paladin has a great setting, great characters, a good plot, a great grasp of the realities of communication and travel in a non-technological world, and one other thing I appreciated:
I think I’ll discuss this theme tomorrow. Let it suffice to say that the girl uses disruption to get what she wants, only to have it used against her later. And then Disruption becomes the main theme of the last third of the book. We’ll discuss this more tomorrow.