TITLE: Paladin's Strength (Saint of Steel #2)
AUTHOR: T. Kingfisher
GENRE: Fantasy, Romance
PUBLISHED: February 28, 2021
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
This is the second book in a series. As such, there may be spoilers for the first book, though there are no spoilers for the book being reviewed. Please read the first book before reading this review.
At the start of 2020, I was still working at the office, albeit with a mask, though that was out of caution due to the ashfall from the eruption of Taal Volcano. At the time, my coworkers brushed off news regarding COVID-19, since viruses that had caused major pandemics before hadn’t managed to gain a foothold in the country. The belief was that increasing summer temperatures would kill the virus and prevent it from taking root in the populace.
Well, we all know how that turned out.
Now, well into the second year of the pandemic and still under quarantine (albeit not as strict as it initially was), it seems rather appropriate that I should pick up the sequel to a book that I read to comfort myself during those first bewildering months of the pandemic.
Paladin’s Strength by T. Kingfisher is the second book in the Saint of Steel series. It continues some time after the events of the first book, Paladin’s Grace, and tells the story of Istvhan, one of the paladins of the dead Saint of Steel, and Clara, a nun from the Order of St. Ursa. The two of them meet while Istvhan is on a mission to chase down the smooth men who were the primary villains in the first book, while Clara is on a mission to find the sisters of her order, who were kidnapped some time ago. After a bloody event shows them that their missions are connected, they travel together to the gladiatorial arena in the heart of a deeply corrupt city, where the smooth men and the secrets of Clara’s order are intertwined in a way neither of them could have imagined.
First, I would like to note that this novel is bloodier and more violent than its predecessor; both Istvhan and Clara kill quite a few people in self-defense or in the defense of others. This may cause some readers to balk, especially if they were not expecting that much bloodshed. But aside from that detail, Paladin’s Strength isn’t really all that different from Paladin’s Grace. Like its predecessor, it deals with themes that have don’t actually have to do with violence: themes like acceptance, and trust, and the realisation that while love can save and uplift, it can also be twisted and used to hurt others.
These themes play out most clearly in the romance between Istvhan and Clara. One of the things I most appreciate about this novel is how the two are described. Istvhan, for instance, is described as follows:
He was tall and heavy-boned, taller than any of the men behind her, and he almost certainly expected to look down to meet a woman’s eyes. That Clara only had to lift her chin a fraction to meet his clearly surprised him.
His face was dark and seamed with scars, his hair black and fiercely curly, shot with gray at the temples. There were fine lines at the corners of his eyes, paler than the surrounding skin. … It made him look older than he probably was, and he already did not look young. Nearly forty, perhaps.
Now, while this description might not surprise a lot of readers familiar with the conventions of the romance genre, Clara’s description might not:
She was a big woman. Nearly as tall as he was, which put her well over six feet, with heavy breasts and belly, hips and thighs. Her shoulders were broad and she carried herself with the confidence of one who is used to being the most physically powerful person in the room.
Clara, therefore, is not a dainty little bit of a thing, which is a common make and build in other romance novels when paired with big, (not so) bad, handsome men (apologies to Imelda May) like Istvhan. Instead, she’s of the same size and build as he, and is of a similar age.
These are details that please me immensely and which I appreciate a lot. While I am not the same size as Clara and Istvhan, I am pretty close to the same age as they, and when they grouse about various age-related aches and pains, I cannot help but chuckle in commiseration. It’s nice to read about a romantic couple who are on the older side, not least because it offers some sliver of hope to us readers who haven’t yet found romance that not all is lost just because we are no longer the young nubile things we used to be.
Another element of Clara and Istvhan’s relationship that I was drawn to is how they are willing to be vulnerable with each other. It takes time, of course – neither of them is willing to open up to the other immediately – but the fact that they eventually do is something I thoroughly enjoyed reading about, and simultaneously something I envy. As someone who has a hard time opening up to others due to a past history of emotional abuse, reading how both Clara and Istvhan (but mostly Clara) decide to take a risk on someone and have the risk be worth it induces certain feelings of envy, but is also rather heartening. Like Clara, I trusted someone that deeply once, and had that trust twisted in a manner that has scarred me forever. But as the story progresses, Clara realises that while the hurts done to her shape her and are forever a part of her, they are not the end-all and be-all of who she is. She opens up, not because someone else makes her do so, but because she chooses to. If this is a heads-up from the universe to me, well then: noted.
Speaking of how trust and love can be twisted in a manner to hurt someone, that too is something that’s tackled in this novel. I won’t get into too many details to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that when it happens, it’s gut-wrenching, and more than a little familiar to me – not the violence, of course, but the emotional power of the moment. I suspect I will not be the only reader who sympathises with the victim in this case; plenty of people have only wanted to love, and be loved in return, only for that desire to be twisted and turned into a weapon against them and those around them. There is another element to this story that may lessen the reader’s sympathy a little bit, because selfishness is a thing that can be borne from love and is caught up in it too, but that is for the reader to discover and decide for themselves.
Overall, Paladin’s Strength is an excellent continuation of Paladin’s Grace, woven with all the elements that made its predecessor such a wonderful read, while at the same time standing well enough on its own as a separate story in the larger World of the White Rat, as the overall setting for these novels is called. Istvhan and Clara are a delight to read about, their romance satisfying and touching in equal turns, tackling as it does themes of trust and acceptance: both cornerstones of good relationships, romantic or otherwise. The mystery of the smooth men is also well-played, with its own theme of how love does not, in fact, fix everything. I’ve now got my fingers crossed for a third book in the Saint of Steel series, and I am sure that, when it comes out, it’ll be exactly the kind of read I’ll need to get me through troubled and troubling times.