Paladin's Strength by T. Kingfisher (The Saint of Steel #2)
He's a paladin of a dead god, tracking a supernatural killer across a continent. She's a nun from a secretive order, on the trail of the raiders who burned her convent and kidnapped her sisters.
When their paths cross at the point of a sword, Istvhan and Clara will be pitched headlong into each other's quests, facing off against enemies both living and dead. But Clara has a secret that could jeopardize the growing trust between them, a secret that will lead them to the gladiatorial pits of a corrupt city, and beyond...
TITLE: Paladin's Strength
AUTHOR: T. Kingfisher
PUBLISHER: Red Wombat Studio
LENGTH: 498 pages
GENRE: Fantasy, Romance
Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Minor Character(s), Gay/Achillean Secondary Character(s), Trans Minor Character(s).
Clara is on the trail of her abducted sisters, and Istvhan is tracking a very strange pattern of headless corpses. They meet abruptly when Clara helps Istvhan navigate a cross-cultural social situation with the potential to go very badly for everyone involved. It turns out they need to go in roughly the same direction, and Clara joins Istvhan's traveling party while she tries to get word of her sisters. Most of the story revolves around the various obstacles in their journey, and the growing rapport between the two of them. The interactions are complicated at times as they're not sure how interested the other person is or how far they can be trusted. Clara, especially, has a lot of reason not to trust anyone with her secrets as they're not hers alone.
Istvhan was a secondary character in PALADIN'S GRACE, and his mission is related to the murderous and undead-adjacent "smooth men" Stephen encountered briefly there. This serves to wrap up that storyline, possibly completely, but it remains to be seen whether there will be further related incidents in later books. I enjoyed the brief anecdote from Istvhan as to more developments in Stephen and Grace's relationship. There's a new storyline related to Clara and her kidnapped sisters of St. Ursa, as well as the romance between Istvhan and Clara. This isn't the last book in the series, but because it appears that each book with have a different protagonist, it's pretty wide open as to what might be open enough to be picked up later. The one thing I can say for certain is there are five more paladins of the Saint of Steel who can be protagonists, and that the White Rat will continue to be relevant. Beyond that, these books are gradually filling in a whole world, and it's open enough that it doesn't feel like anything in particular was left for later, other than the march of time and that people will continue to need help that can be given by broken paladins of a dead god with their shiny swords.
Istvhan feels like he did in the first book, albeit having been filtered through Grace and Stephen's perceptions of him. Clara is an entirely new protagonist. Istvhan and Clara both have secrets they're keeping, and good reasons to be concerned that the other person might not want to stick around once they know. The romance is a slow burn, as even after they start to be physically intimate they don't know if the other person will stay interested once they know more of what's going on.
This would make sense to someone who started here without reading any other books in the world of the White Rat, let alone in The Saint of Steel series particularly, but the loose collection of the White Rat are building a world with each new story, and a few side details will be more impactful for someone who has already read PALADIN'S GRACE, in particular. Sometimes these little details double as updates about characters met elsewhere, other times they just contribute to the reader's growing knowledge of their shared setting. However, the main story and most of the side threads will be understandable and have much of their poignancy for someone who picks this up without knowledge of the other books.
I love the gladiator sequence towards the end. It's a tangle of plans, interruptions, and hoping things go well long enough for them to pull off something just shy of a miracle under terrible conditions.
Graphic/Explicit CW for sexual content, grief, confinement, fire/fire injury, excrement, blood, gore, violence, body horror, suicide, murder, child death, death.
Moderate CW for mental illness, alcohol, kidnapping, injury detail, torture, animal cruelty, animal death.
Minor CW for vomit, pregnancy, medical content, genocide, slavery, cannibalism.