Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Mar 24th, 2021, 3:40 am

TITLE: Paladin's Grace (Saint of Steel #1)
AUTHOR: T. Kingfisher
GENRE: Fantasy, Romance
PUBLISHED: April 14, 2020
RATING: ★★★★★


Around this time in 2019, I got back into playing Dungeons and Dragons thanks to one of my close friends. I’d tried to play it before, but it was only this go-round that the bug really bit. Two years on and I've created a "Break in Case of Permadeath" collection: character sheets I've made up in my spare time, consisting of characters of various races and classes that can be rolled into a game on short notice in case the one I'm currently playing happens to die permanently.

Among the many, many potential classes a player can choose for their character is the Paladin. The term itself comes from the Matter of France, which is the most notable of the medieval chansons de geste, or heroic epic poetry. They are, in essence, the French equivalent of the Arthurian legends, with Charlemagne in the place of King Arthur, and in place of the Knights of the Round Table, there are the Twelve Peers, or the Twelve Paladins (from the Latin "palātīnus", a title used by the closest retainers of the Roman emperor). The legends told about these knights have overlapped and commingled with the tales told of the Arthurian knights, and down the line, those stories have inspired fantasy authors. Their stories have, in turn, inspired the D&D version of the Paladin: a warrior who can cast magic thanks to the incredible strength of their faith.

It is this latter version of the Paladin that features in Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher. The titular paladin, Stephen, is a shadow of who he once was after a disaster rips out the core of his identity as a paladin. He finds himself living from day to day, wanting only to continue the life of service he once had, in whatever form that might take now. One day, he runs into Grace, a perfumer with a dark past, and soon, the two of them find themselves entangled in a web of court intrigue that could get them both killed – if the serial killer stalking the city’s streets doesn’t get to them first.

Quite frankly, I’m glad that I chose to pick up Paladin’s Grace. The pandemic has made me weary, and anxious, and weary of being anxious, and I desperately needed something to take my mind off all the things about the world that are wearing me down. Paladin’s Grace did exactly that. It’s not a fluffy read – or at least, not in the sense that it’s all froth and no substance. This novel has a spine, to be sure; it deals with questions of purpose, and how to find it again when one thinks one has lost it. It also deals with questions of emotional abuse, and the process of recovery from it.

It’s the latter part that really hit me in the emotional solar plexus. For nearly two decades I was caught up in an emotionally-abusive friendship. I know that it’s romantic relationships that tend to get the most mileage in various media, but just because it was a friendship and not a romantic relationship doesn’t make my experience any less traumatising. It has taken me a while to admit that (not least because, again, it appears that the media largely validates emotionally abusive romantic relationships, but not necessarily platonic ones), but thanks to some of my close friends, I’ve gotten myself mostly disentangled from the abusive friendship – though recovery is another thing entirely.

Which is why reading about Grace’s situation hits me especially hard, since I recognise some of her thought patterns. Take the following excerpt:
“Were you unhappy?” asked Stephen.

Grace clearly had to think about it. “I suppose so. Yes, I must have been, but…it’s so hard to say. I was so relieved, you see.” She gnawed on her lower lip. “To be out of my apprenticeship and able to sell my own perfumes. I hadn’t known how I was going to do that. And relief felt like happiness, if you don’t know the difference. I don’t know that I’d have been able to tell you that, at the time. It took distance, and I was still so close to it then.”

“We’re all very close to our lives,” said Stephen. “Most of the time, anyway.”

“And then I wasn’t,” she admitted. “Relief wasn’t enough any more. But I’d been there so long, you know, that it took…well, a long time.”

“It’s all right,” he said, seeing her flush at a memory. … “There’s no shame in that.”

“Isn’t there?” asked Grace. “It seems like if I was wiser or cleverer or…or more experienced, or something…”

“No.” He was using the voice, he could hear himself doing it, but he believed it and he wanted her to believe it as well. “You can’t blame yourself for not knowing what you were never allowed to know.”

“I’m happy now, I think,” she said. … “…it startles me, because I don’t feel like I have a right to be happy…”

“You always have a right to be happy,” he said.

The above conversation is something I’ve had to deal with since getting out of the abusive friendship. The bit where Grace asks herself if she could have done better if she’d just been “wiser or cleverer or…or more experienced, or something…” hits especially hard, because I still ask myself that question. Could I have avoided all that heartache, if I’d just been smarter? Could I have gotten out sooner, if I’d just listened to what other people were saying? Could there have been a different outcome, if I’d just been more perceptive?

In the end, those are questions that are impossible to answer. Hindsight might have twenty-twenty vision, but it’s still hindsight. And as Stephen says: “You can’t blame yourself for not knowing what you were never allowed to know.” And in a way, I was never allowed to know what my ex-best friend was truly like. Abusers don’t tell their victims that they are abusing them, or I suppose my ex-best friend didn’t know she was being abusive in the first place. That’s a more complicated set of questions to answer, not least because I’ve avoided all contact with her as much as possible since the time our falling-out became absolutely final. Still, intentional or not, the damage remains, and it will take a long, long time for me to recover.

But that’s the thing: there is a chance at recovery. Grace is proof of that; it took her a while, but she managed to recover – and on her own terms. While this is a romance, and while Stephen does play a role in Grace’s recovery, that role is to help Grace on the path to recovery, not to save her. There is a scene in the novel that really shows this off to best effect, but again I won’t describe or quote it here to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that, when Grace finally faces her demons head-on, she does so on her own strength, standing on her own two feet, with Stephen standing aside to let her do what she needs to do – because he knows she can take care of it just fine.

For some readers, I suppose that seeing this entire scenario with Grace play out in front of them via this novel might be too painful to bear; that's understandable. But in my case, and perhaps in the case of other readers, reading about Grace's situation and her eventual recovery is incredibly reassuring. It's a reminder that, yes, one day all this shall pass, and we are still worthy of love and care and understanding, no matter how damaged we are on the inside. It's a credit, too, to Kingfisher, that she writes of these things in a manner that might sting with familiar pain, but still contains a depth of tenderness and understanding for a situation that many people do not understand or dismiss out-of-hand.

While Grace’s story of abuse and her path to recovery is the narrative I can relate to the most, Stephen’s story is just as powerful. His narrative is about grief and mourning, and though the focus of that grief and loss is very much a fantasy thing, it does not lessen the impact of Stephen’s feelings and journey. Stephen’s road to acceptance is an intensely personal one – more so than Grace’s, actually – but it does show how purpose is something that one finds, instead of something that one is given. And that purpose need not be one that is grandiose. More often than not, it can be something quiet, and simple: as simple as caring for someone else.

Overall, Paladin’s Grace is a lighthearted, charming read, filled with wonderful characters and clever, gently humorous writing. But at the core of that charm and lightheartedness are themes of hopefulness in the face of great adversity; of finding strength in oneself after harrowing life events; and that love and happiness are not just for the undamaged, but for everyone.
Mar 24th, 2021, 3:40 am