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Paladin’s Strength by T. Kingfisher

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Paladin’s Strength

by T. Kingfisher
February 28, 2021
Fantasy/Fairy Tale RomanceRomance

Content warning: there is a fair bit of violence, some of it quite gory, because the adventure part of the plot involves killer zombie-golems, were-beasts, gladiatorial arenas, kidnappers and more. Quite a few minor characters die. There is, however, absolutely no sexual violence in this book, despite certain aspects of the premise that might suggest it.

If someone asked me if I wanted to read a romance that was sweet and comforting and funny and down to earth and also full of severed heads and murderous golems and evil politicians, I would probably look at them very oddly and assume that their notion of ‘sweet and comforting and funny’ was drastically different from mine. I have virtually zero tolerance for gore and scary things in my books.

And yet, here we are. Paladin’s Strength is all of those things, and I loved it to bits.

Paladin’s Strength is the second book in the Saint of Steel series, and it stands alone very nicely. (Then again, why would you not want to read another book by T. Kingfisher? You really might as well read Paladin’s Grace first…)

The story starts with a scene that ought to be ominous but is instead both pragmatic and humorous: a nun is delivered to the tent of a warrior, as a form of payment to settle a dispute. But the warrior, Istvhan, is appalled and has no idea what to do with her, and the nun, Clara, has to quietly coach him through the formalities so that he doesn’t accidentally start a blood feud. They are both very clear that Clara does not belong to Istvhan, but since they are both on quests that are leading them in the same direction (and since Istvhan is the sort who cannot possibly let a woman go on a dangerous quest alone), they decide to travel together for a bit.

Of course, to call Istvhan a warrior or Clara a nun is to simplify matters dramatically, but turning tropes upside down is one of the things this book does best, and so it seems only fair to start with one.

Istvhan is not just a warrior, but a Paladin of the Saint of Steel – a beserker knight sworn to the service of his God, who protects the innocent and fights only the God’s battles. But his order was shattered when their God died, and the beserkers, with no holy leash holding them back, went mad and killed each other. Only seven of them are left, and they are all somewhat broken in different ways. It is difficult to live in a world when a God used to be in your head and your heart and He is now gone.

The Order of the Rat has taken the paladins in, and given them something of a sense of purpose, but the Rat calls lawyers and priests, not paladins. And so when the Smooth Men – strange creatures with clay heads who are somewhere between a golem and a zombie – begin leaving a trail of freshly severed heads and rotting decapitated corpses behind them, paladins are clearly the answer. Istvhan is sent on a quest to find out their source, and, ideally, destroy it.

Clara, meanwhile, is not a precisely nun, but a lay sister in the Order of St Ursa (and definitely not sworn to celibacy, by the way!). She has spent many years trading the Sisterhood’s goods up and down the river, but is now on a far more perilous quest – to rescue the Sisterhood from the men who set their monastery on fire and kidnapped them. The Sisters of St Ursa share a secret, which you can probably guess from the name. They are certainly not your average nuns – not even average for this particular world, which is one in which everyone seems to find nuns absolutely terrifying.

“Don’t you have nuns where you’re from?”
“We have *lots* of nuns. That’s why I’m scared of you.”

I loved Istvhan and Clara, both as individuals and together. Clara is in her late thirties and Istvhan is forty, and they have both lived through enough things that they know themselves pretty well, and are deeply comfortable with who they are. They are not free from angst and insecurities, but they both have a certain degree of self-acceptance which makes them very relaxing to read about. They also share a sense of humour and a strong sense of the ridiculous, which is very much needed given the sort of lives they live.

Clara is a delight. She is extremely pragmatic, down to earth, and has a very dry sense of humour. I loved her confidence in herself, and how much of this confidence comes from her body. It’s unusual, I think, to see a heroine who is tall and big and imposing and who finds that a positive source of confidence. She has, however, learned to keep others at a distance. Her Sisters are her family and she has no other – the one time she revealed her secret to a lover it ended extremely badly, and she’s not going to risk that happening again.

Istvhan is a fundamentally kind and decent person, but the death of his God has left him bereft and mistrustful of his beserker abilities. Like Clara, he keeps people at a distance, and maintains a façade of easy-going humour. This easy-going façade is also born from a consciousness that he is a very big, strong man, and a trained warrior – and that a woman might not feel safe saying no to him even if she would like to do so. He has learned to look out for any possible tell that someone is uncomfortable, and to always, always let the woman make the first move. A large part of his attraction to Clara is that she is almost as big and as strong as he is – he doesn’t have to be afraid of harming her by accident. I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance where a hero was so very watchful about making sure he is doing consent right, and it was an absolute gift to read right now.

Of course, Istvhan’s carefulness does mean that the romance in this story is a very slow burn. Indeed, it is so torturous, and there are so many interrupted moments between Istvhan and Clara that after a while it starts to feel like the story is deliberately messing with the readers

The door slammed open. Clara and Istvhan leapt apart as if they’d been caught doing something indecent, which they had, but not nearly as indecent as Istvahn had been hoping. Clara snatched at the throat of her robes, pulling them closed.

Ethan stood in the doorway with his arms full of dripping jars. If he even noticed the state of their clothes, it wasn’t obvious. “You’ve got to help me,” he gasped. “There’s men coming to raid the safehouse. We have to save the newts!”

I may have sworn at the author at this point.

(To my intense amusement, her editor evidently feels the same way I do.)

But both Clara and Istvhan have some fairly deep insecurities, and they need to be certain of each other. Cock-blocking newts aside, this is a romance which needs to go slowly.

And how is this for a definition of love?

I trust you to watch my back. I have enormous faith in your competence. I want you to be happy. I want to carry extra robes around in my pack in case you need them and I want you to eat the beach plums I won’t eat and I want to wander around the world with you and complain about the size of the silverware and I’m afraid that you’ll go back to your convent and you won’t need me any longer and I’ll be so glad that you’re happy and so damn miserable that you’re not beside me.


One of the most beautiful things about Clara and Istvhan’s relationship is Istvhan’s absolute acceptance of Clara’s secret and of who she is. And I don’t think I can do this justice without revealing said secret, so:

[spoiler text="Here be spoilers (up to the 25% mark of the book)"]

Clara and her Sisters can turn into bears when they choose, or sometimes involuntarily at times of high emotion. The bears are rather large. And can bite an enemy’s face in half. And so girls who start turning into bears are given to the convent.

“Everyone in the valley knows that if a child isn’t…right…you talk to the Sister of St. Ursa.”

“Isn’t right?” He felt a flicker of anger for nine-year-old Clara. “I don’t know that I’d call turning into a perfectly good bear ‘not right.’”

Clara laughed once, loudly, then put her hand over her mouth. “Well,” she said, her eyes dancing, “I appreciate that I am a perfectly good bear. But it was rather shocking for my parents…”

I loved so much about Istvhan’s response to Clara’s bearishness, and his protective instinct towards the younger Clara. I also liked the nuance that while he is instinctively appalled by the face-biting-off-ishness, he immediately recognises that this is a double standard (after all, he has killed plenty of people himself), and that his feelings about Clara being a bear are his problem and not Clara’s. And so, while he does have a bunch of stuff to figure out around this, it all happens in his head, and Clara never has to see any of it. Which is an excellent model for dealing with one’s own prejudices, really.

Meanwhile, he treats Clara as a friend and a partner, bear and all. Bear-Clara has certain advantages in tracking the Smooth Men (and, of course, in fighting) but turning into a bear also comes with certain disadvantages, which Istvhan compensates for, as any good partner should.

“Half a moment,” said Istvhan. He shook wet hair out of his face and dug through his pack. There was a large lumpy package at the bottom, taking up space that had previously been occupied by field rations. “It’s not much, but you won’t cause a scandal walking through town.”

She blinked at him. “You brought a change of clothes? For me?”

“You turn into a bear sometimes,” he said. “It seems to be extremely hard on your wardrobe. I thought…” He trailed off, slightly horrified, because she looked like she might cry. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” she said thickly. “Thank you. This is…it’s very kind. Nobody outside the sisterhood has ever… well. Thank you.”

For me, this was one of the most romantic moments in the book.

My one complaint about the romance is that I would really have liked an epilogue! Or another chapter, or something! The story ends rather abruptly, when everyone is safe and out of danger and love is acknowledged, and I just wanted a bit more of Clara and Istvhan being happy together.

Beyond the romance…oh, there is so much about this book to love! In addition to being a romance novel, Paladin’s Strength is also a really excellent fantasy novel with high stakes – while it has a very satisfying happy ending, not everyone gets out of this story alive, and the resolution of the fantasy plot definitely has tragic elements.

I also adored the worldbuilding. There are strange Gods and Saints and cultures and politics; there are the terrifying and revolting Smooth Men; and there are fantastical species ranging from the badger-like and sentient gnoles, to shapeshifters, to the Warrenmind, a creepy rabbit hive-mind which is honestly straight out of a horror novel. And yet, the people walking through this world are very human and grounded in reality. They sleep in uncomfortable beds, have bodies that behave in inconvenient ways, travel in wagons that get stuck in the mud, and are frequently hungry or dirty or cold or covered in newt water. And this very earthy, bodily reality makes the fantastical and horrific elements feel far more real.

The world of the Saint of Steel is also casually diverse, with many characters of colour and LGBTIQA characters, and while this is not a world that is free of prejudice, none of it seems to be based on skin colour, gender identity or sexuality.

I was especially enamoured of the theology in this book. Both Clara and Istvhan are people with ambiguous gifts, devoted to Gods who are absent. Clara may have the gift of Saint Ursa, but she has never felt the presence of Ursa directly, and struggles to know what Ursa wants of her. Istvhan, meanwhile, has lost his God, but still carries his dangerous berserker streak, which he never learned to control without his God carrying him. And so both are people with powers that can be used for great good, but which are also dangerous to themselves and to other people. I found this interesting, because it is more common in fantasy for people with great gifts also to be Chosen Ones, of sorts – people with a Great Quest which they know to be their purpose in life. And when you are Chosen, there is no need for you to wonder about the morality of your quest.

“It was easier, before.”

“Everything was easier, before.”

“Yes. But we never had to worry about making a mistake. We could just…come in at the end. Everything was clearcut.”

Istvhan grunted. He suspected that even before, in the service of the Saint of Steel, things had not been quite so clearcut as that. It was simply that a god made those decisions, not His followers. But that had been another life, another time, and neither he nor Galen lived in that world any longer. Now they muddled through like other mortals and did their best and tried to keep their feet in a rising tide.

But Clara and Istvhan are not Chosen – or if they were once, they aren’t now, or they aren’t aware of it. And so they have to choose their own quests, and decide on their own what is the right thing to do. As a person of faith myself, this rang very true.

Paladin’s Strength is by turns romantic and horrific and sweet and thoughtful and sad and very, very funny. It is a story about two people finding each other at the right time in their lives, and becoming friends and allies as well as romantic partners. It is also a story about overcoming evil without losing yourself in the process. There is competency porn – so much competency porn! – there are some terrific friendships, there are moments of pathos and tragedy and heroism, and there are also some terrible puns. Honestly there is a LOT going on in this book and there was not one tiny bit of it that I did not love. (I say this as someone who has just read the whole thing through twice in a row and is contemplating her third read in the space of a week. I am currently in the process of forcing everyone I know in real life to read this book, because I feel very strongly that everyone would be happier if they read this book. I may have just stood over one of my friends until he purchased the book and put it on his Kobo. Because that is what friends do for friends.)

In case it wasn’t EXTREMELY evident already, Paladin’s Strength gets a Squee rating from me. I can’t remember the last time a book appealed to me quite this much. Even with that MEAN slow burn…

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