In The Paladin, Cherryh has lifted a popular plot from Chinese martial-arts fantasies; that of the exiled master, and his passionate young student bent on righting an injustice. The setting is Chiyaden, a mythical land culturally analogous to Han Dynasty China. The legendary sword-master Shoka (also known as "Saukendar"1), who once served the old Emperor, now lives in exile in a remote southern province. Lord Ghita, chief advisor to the callow young fool who succeeded to the throne, is slowly gathering the reins of power into his own hands, promoting his friends and destroying his opponents piecemeal. Through all of these events Master Saukendar dwells alone on his mountain, revered by the local villagers, feared by bandits, aloof from the chaos in Chiyaden. Many wish to study with the legendary master - all are refused, until one day he is visited by a scarred and desperate sixteen year-old girl called Taizu, who lives only for revenge.
All of the elements are here: the inaccessible master, the one youth who manages to become his student, the period of training, and the quest to destroy the evil lord. Nor is the sex of the youth an original element, for women-warriors are a staple of the martial-arts genre. Cherryh's originality lies in her treatment of her characters. Save for a brief prologue, the entire tale is told from Shoka's viewpoint, and we learn more of the master than is usual in martial-arts stories.
Shoka is by no means an enlightened old hermit, withdrawn from the mundane world to perfect his soul - for one thing, he's only forty years old. Shoka is a disillusioned and embittered man, pained by the loss of a forbidden love, and partially lamed by an old battle injury. He has given up on noble causes, and wants only to live in peace on his mountain. He certainly does not want to do anything to provoke the Emperor and Lord Ghita. Nor does he want students, with whom he has not had notable success in the past; his last student was the current Emperor. Especially he has no wish to train a girl who, he feels, could never develop the strength to make a real swordsman. His first thought is to take Taizu to a nunnery, or find her a place in the village; his second is to keep her on as a servant and sometime bed-partner.
Taizu's thoughts are less accessible, but her words and actions illustrate her clearly enough. She is single-mindedly focused on revenge against Lord Gitu, an ally and client of Lord Ghita (don't let the similarity of the names throw you - it's not a typo; they are indeed different people). She has experienced more evil than is the normal lot of a young girl in Chiyaden, and this has made her very shy of men and their intentions. She wants none of the alternatives offered by Shoka - she wants only the benefit of his training. Shoka finally promises to teach Taizu, on the understanding that if she fails at any point, she will accept one of the other paths he has offered. Shoka feels safe in this, for he knows that Taizu will fail; Taizu also feels safe, as she knows that she will not.
Cherryh handles the dynamics of the relationship between the teacher and his student with particular skill. There are frequent surprises and twists, but none seem unnatural or contrived. Often enough, the teacher learns from his student. And the relationship serves to broaden both Shoka's and Taizu's engagement with the world beyond the mountain, against both their wills.
Except for the imagined setting, The Paladin is not truly a fantasy. There are no weird creatures, no magic, and though references are made to the supernatural, they do not manifest. While I have compared the story to martial-arts fantasies, there are none of the mystical elements that frequently accompany such stories. Cherryh's portrayal of travel, warfare, and the realities of life in a low-tech society are all realistic. The publisher of this novel, Baen Books, has recently released a new edition of The Paladin. I recommend it.