‘The Paladin’ by C.J.Cherryh  http://www.amazon.com/Paladin-C-J-Cherryh/dp/0671318373

Looking for a night in shining armor, a paragon of virtue and flawless character? An untarnished hero who is a beacon of light standing against the darkness? Look somewhere else.

In a nutshell we have the main character, and exiled sword master from a china-like fantasy kingdom. A peasant girl whose family have been casualties of the political strife in his former kingdom comes to him and demands that he train her so that she can revenge herself on the Lord responsible. I don’t think that it’s really a spoiler to tell you that he does so, and that they embark on a quest to get her revenge. All fairly standard stuff.

The entire story is told as a stream of consciousness narrative from the perspective of the aging sword-master, Shoka. He is not always a lovely person, or easy to like. He is impatient, irritable and very much a product of his culture, which is patriarchal and oppressive of women. Several times in the narrative he half-seriously considers raping his student to ‘end her foolishness.’ He never does of course; regardless of his thoughts he is at his core an honorable and practical man, or at least tries to be. Whether you ever come to like him or not, he is complex, interesting, human and completely believable in context.

In the course of the book we meet Taizu, the peasant girl hell-bent on revenge. We come to know her entirely through Shoka’s eyes. It’s fascinating to watch her become, not just a nuisance, not just a student and source of sexual frustration, but a complex and interesting person in her own right. One that he comes to value and even love.

Which of these two is the paladin referred to in the title? I’ve reread this book many times over the years and I still can’t decide. Perhaps it is both. Regardless of how many times I read this book I always find it a rich and satisfying experience.