I saved Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold, for last, because I have read it before and thus already knew I liked it, and I wanted to save something safe for last! And really, I have liked it more on every read. Penric is such an utterly endearing character – unassuming, sharply intelligent, and so very kind, and I love his relationship with Desdemona, the demon who rides inside his head and shares his thoughts. It takes a certain type of personality to just accept the presence of a powerful demon, and to view Desdemona as a council of older sisters who are his constant (and frequently commentating) companions. I love the combination of affection and exasperation he has for Desdemona in her many persons.
In this story, Penric is helping track down someone who might be a murderer, or might be a trainee shaman who had things go terribly wrong. He is in the company of Osric, who is this world’s equivalent of a detective inspector or something of that nature, who has called on Penric’s patroness for some support, as he knows that he does not have the capacity to deal with the supernatural on his own.
I think what I love most about Bujold’s work is that it is always very good-hearted. There is a generosity to her stories that gives characters permission to learn from their mistakes. Yes, there are consequences for actions, but justice in Bujold’s universe is restorative, rather than vengeful. This is very soothing, especially after all the Lovecraft pastiche! I like that Bujold can write a story in which everyone really is doing their best, without necessarily being right – good intentions are important, but not sufficient.
Despite my desire to give the other stories a fair chance, Penric’s Shaman was by far my favourite. It is so easy to read, it has humour, and kindness, and a clever plot, and characters I want to spend more time with. My one possible quibble – which is something I really can’t judge – is that I don’t know how well this story would stand on its own, without having read the first in the series. I think it would work, but one can’t in-read a book, so I just can’t tell.
And I love this story too much to care.
At this stage, my ballot will be Bujold first, Ashanti Wilson and McGuire next, though not necessarily in that order. These three stories were all enjoyable, did not bore me at any point, and I would read them again. Johnson comes 4th, because while I enjoyed the beginning and ending and loved the main character, it did get tedious in the middle (possibly because it was trying to follow the Lovecraftian original). Miéville comes fifth, because it might have been a good story but I found it opaque and unpleasant, and Lavalle is in last place, because it was unpleasant and wasn’t even opaque enough to give me distance from the unpleasantness! Also, I think it really did require a knowledge of Lovecraft to enjoy it. I don’t know what would have made me enjoy the Miéville, but at least it stood alone.
I think I’ll tackle some of the non-fiction next, as I have a story to write, so I need to starve myself of new fiction for a few days. I might even give myself a few days off from the ballot entirely – after all, I’ve done five categories already, and may not even be doing the film/TV episode ones, so I’m doing quite well for time.