Hugo reading 2018: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods Series

Look, I’ve known from the start that Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods series was going to win this section for me, but I should probably review it anyway, just so that I can explain why!

Basically, it’s the theology. I love the way the Gods work in this world. I love the way nothing is without a price – but the price isn’t arbitrary, it’s more a matter of necessity. I love the way the Saints are all rather put-upon, and seem to share a bond of affectionate, not particularly pious, resignation with the ways of the Gods (often to the shock of more pious, but less God-ridden characters). I love the older characters who still get to be heroes and have adventures and find love. And I love the way in the first book, you spend 90 pages thinking that you have a nice, well-written, medieval-Spain sort of high fantasy on your hands, and then suddenly the miracle happens and the world changes and you realise that everything you have read up until now has a completely different interpretation and meaning to what you thought.

Most recently, I’ve been re-reading the Penric books, so I’m going to write in a somewhat rambling way about those. Penric, on his way to his betrothal, meets an old lady in distress – dying, in fact. He stops to help her, and so inherits her demon upon her death. You see, the elderly lady was a temple sorceror, and so now… so is Penric.

Well, not quite. Inheriting a demon makes you a sorceror, becoming a temple sorceror is more complicated.

Penric is possibly the most endearing hero I have read in a story. He is quite young in the first novella, and very naive, and means well, and is totally unprepared for politics. And when you have inherited a powerful demon, that can only be removed from you by killing either you or it, the politics will come… Demons, in Bujold’s world, emanate somehow from the Bastard’s Hell, and start off as unformed, destructive bits of spirit. But they learn from every animal or person who houses them, and kind of carry an imprint of their former hosts forward.

Penric’s demon (whom he dubs Desdemona) is old and powerful, and carries the memories and personalities of ten women, plus a lioness and a mare. Her previous riders were physicians and spies as well as sorcerors, and quite worldly-wise – Penric likens Desdemona to a ‘council of elder sisters’, and in some ways she is. In others, she is like a small child; and she is alternately protective, teasing, capricious, helpful, and destructive when bored. The relationship between Pen and Des is absolutely delightful.

I think for me one of the great things about Bujold’s work is its kindness. Her characters are, by and large, people who are trying to make the world around them a better place. And she usually lets them succeed. It isn’t all sweetness and light – her preferred plotting style is still ‘what’s the worst thing I can do to this character’, but in the end, hope always wins. And that’s an important thing.

Hugo reading 2018: Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series

Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series is one of the two series nominated for this award that I have read in full.  The series centres around the Price family, who are crytpozoologists, and the cryptids they serve.  The cryptobiology is well-thought-out, and ranges from the amusing to the grotesque, much in the manner of actual zoology.

The other thing you need to know about the Price family is that they are in hiding.  Several generations ago, the Prices and Healys were members of the Covenant, an international organisation devoted to protecting humanity from monsters.  But the Covenant defines monsters pretty broadly, and Alexander and Enid Healy began to have doubts about this mission after the extinction of unicorns led to an outbreak of cholera (unicorns purify water, after all…).  And possibly also after they encountered the Aislinn mice, a species of sentient mouse characterised by religious fervour and a tendency to talk in ALL CAPS WITH EXCLAMATION POINTS!  ALL HAIL THE EXCLAMATION POINT!!

Frankly, the Aislinn mice alone are worth the price of admission to these books.

Anyway, the Covenant did not take kindly to the departure of the Healys, who they viewed as traitors to the human race.  A generation or two later, they sent Thomas Price after them, but he wound up falling in love with Alice Healy and marrying her.  After that, the Healy and Price families basically faked their own deaths and went into hiding for several generations.

At the point when the series begins, then (in Discount Armageddon), the Prices have become the cryptozoologist equivalent of rangers – they study and protect cryptid populations, rehome or, where necessary, destroy cryptids who are preying on humans, and they learn to be very good at fighting, trapping and hiding from an early age, because not only is the cryptid population itself somewhat dangerous, one never knows when the Covenant might turn up again.  But they have to do this secretly, because the Covenant monitors the media for mentions of them – so Antimony hones her fighting skills through cheerleading and roller derby; another Price family member learns swordfighting through the SCA, and Verity Price is a professional ballroom dancer.

You will not be surprised to learn that the first book in this series begins with Verity Price meeting Dominic DeLuca, a member of the Covenant, on a rooftop in New York.

This series starts off light and fluffy and humorous – anyone who has read McGuire’s other work knows how much fun she can be when she puts her mind to it, and she really does so here.  But it’s not all sweetness and light, and the darker elements get stronger as the series continues.  Though you can always rely on the mice to improve matters – the Aislinn mouse colony worships the Price family with endless ritualised festivals and re-enactments of important events in the Price family history, but they are more than just comic relief.  They are, quite literally, the Price family’s ‘black box’ – a colony goes with each family member who travels away from the main family, because they can be relied upon to remember everything that happened, and turn it into a singing, dancing, festival that must be observed on the proper day.

An extra fun part about this series is that McGuire has worked out a LOT of the family history of the Healys and Prices, and so there are a lot of short stories on her website, following the lives of various Price and Healy ancestors, and giving us little vignettes of what the characters are doing in between the novels.  This is of particular interest, because after the second book, we leave Verity and follow her brother Alex for a couple of books, before returning to Verity, for another book, then moving on to little sister Antimony –  they are all off doing different things in different places (including Australia!  Where it is heavily implied that a number of the crytpids have managed to get themselves recognised as normal animals, to my amusement…), to further the overarching plot, which I suspect will be extensive, given how McGuire normally works.

This is a really fun series, and I don’t know how to judge it.  I was talking to Andrew last night about the fact that I seem inclined to downgrade novels that I enjoy too much, possibly out of romance-reader shame – I don’t trust my taste to be objectively good, because I like my literature escapist and fluffy.  But this is a problem, because I suspect I’m actually giving too much weight to this idea that my taste is flawed, or that fun, fluffy books aren’t worthwhile.  And… these books aren’t all fluff, either.

It’s also tricky, because I feel as though the worldbuilding is less dense here than it is in the Lady Trent or Divine Cities books, and I’m not sure that that is fair, either.  Yes, this is contemporary urban fantasy, so some parts of the world are already there with no added effort on McGuire’s part – but the cryptozoology and family history is actually very extensive.  It just feels different.  I wonder if this is also because McGuire’s voice is very transparent and modern, so one doesn’t notice it, while Lady Trent has a very distinctly Victorian feel, and the language in the Divine Cities is also subtly different?

I don’t know.  But I think I’m going to put this series second on my ballot after all, because ‘I really like this’ ought to be a value.  That means Lady Trent and the Divine Cities are now fighting it out for third and fourth, and I really have no idea how I’ll make that decision.

Hugo reading 2018: The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan

I read A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan, several years ago, and liked it quite a bit, but not enough to seek out the sequels.  I sort of half-remembered it, but not well enough to review it, so I decided to read the second book in the series, The Tropic of Serpents, for the purpose of the Best Series Nomination.

For those who don’t know this series, it’s pretty delightful.  Each volume is one of the memoirs of Isabella, Lady Trent, a naturalist who specialised in dragons, and travelled the globe to study them in a time when ladies were not encouraged to do such things.

Lady Trent lives in Scirland, which is clearly a parallel to Victorian England.  She is bookish from a child, and fascinated by dragons.  Her mother is unsympathetic, but her father, rather endearingly, makes a list of potential husbands who will let her share their libraries, and she eventually marries Jacob and goes on her first adventure with him.

This is the story of her second adventure, and it’s difficult to discuss without revealing a major spoiler from her first one.  But I will do my best.

Isabella clearly carries the story.  She is clearly writing these memoirs some years after the fact, and is old enough to be free of any embarrassment or shame about her youthful adventures – and it is doubtful if she ever had very much, despite the feelings of Society on the matter.  She is a scientist first and foremost; her narrative is straightforward and she does not shy away from improper topics, though she is aware that her audience might do so.  Her studies take her to other continents (her first adventure appears to be in an alternate Arabia; her second is, I think, somewhere pseudo-African and equatorial), and she deals with the people and their cultures in an equally straightforward fashion – she may not believe what they believe, but cooperating with their cultural mores is generally a good way to get what one wants in the long run, and so she does.  Her memoirs are thus as much anthropological as they are biological.

They are also adventure stories, because seeking out dragons to study is a decidedly hazardous proposition.  Lady Trent frequently finds herself in countries where she speaks the language only partially, negotiating customs that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and dealing with terrain that is a hazard in itself – on top of avoiding the diseases which so often strike Scirlanders when they travel to the tropics, and the Extraordinary Breath and claws of the dragons themselves.  And the odd hippopotamus, hostile tribe, or dangerous ritual.

These books are rather lovely to read.  The Victorian styling feels very thoroughly considered (right down to the unfortunate colonial aspirations and assumptions of many characters in the novels), and the dragon biology and life cycles are well thought out.  I think the fact that I enjoy them so much, then walk away from them and forget about them for years suggests that they don’t belong quite at the top of my ballot.  At the moment, the Five Gods books are unbeatable (and probably will be for many years – I really think they are the best fantasy series out there, but we’ll get to that review in a bit), but I’m struggling with where to place this in relation to The Divine Cities, which were excellent, and Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid Books, which I have read all of and enjoy very much.  It’s difficult to judge a series where you have read all the books against a series where you have only read one or two of them…

I think I need to reread the first InCryptid book as well as the last short story that I haven’t read in order to decide this category.  I’ll review the Bujold tomorrow.

Hugo reading 2018 – Martha Wells and the Books for the Raksura

Oh dear… I’ve just spent a relaxing weekend away at Lorne, and got quite a bit of Hugo reading done, and now I’ve come back to discover that Twitter is on fire because WorldCon seems to be on fire, having self-immolated in a fit of extreme stupidity.

(Honestly, while pretty much everything I’ve read about the latest news sounds pretty depressing and mean-spirited, my inner event manager is also appalled and confused on a purely practical level. I mean, event programming is annoying and time consuming, so if you have a bunch of shortlisted authors who are likely to be at your convention, why on earth would you *not* put them all on your program, and then dust your hands happily at knowing that you have THOSE slots filled? Surely laziness alone should be leading to a more diverse WorldCon program than this, and laziness is a powerful force. It seems that the Committee has put actual effort into being idiots, which boggles my mind.)

Never mind. I’m not going to stop my reading project now just because WorldCon is apparently being run by nitwits. On to the next series, which is the Raksura series by Martha Wells.

I went into this with very high hopes, having enjoyed her Murderbot novella so much. And… look, it’s pretty good. I read the first book in this series, The Cloud Roads, which centres on Moon, a young shapeshifter who has grown up alone, trying to ‘pass’ among groundlings (who are not shapeshifters, but not humans either), after his mother and siblings were killed when he was a child. He is an appealing character, and the worldbuilding is certainly very thorough.

I would actually describe the main part of Well’s worldbuilding in this book as ‘species-building’. Moon turns out to be a Raksura, a species of shapeshifter which itself is divided into two halves, the winged Aeriat, consisting of fertile Queens and Consorts and infertile Warriors, and the wingless Arbora, who are soldiers, teachers, hunters, of Mentors. Mentors have arcane powers of various kinds, particularly augury and healing. The Arbora do still shapeshift, though, and I get the impression that their form must be somewhat lizard-like, since scales and claws are mentioned, and they are clearly fierce and vicious fighters when necessary.

(Ooh, maybe they are crocodiles! Maybe Wells has invented an ENTIRE WORLD full of multicoloured, winged crocodile shapeshifters! This is now my headcanon.)

But there are other intelligent species in this world, too, who are equally complex. The main ones we see are the Fell, who are fairly similar to the Raksura in appearance and structure, but who are predators who prey on intelligent species. We also get a glimpse of the Dwei, but we don’t see much of them.

This story is partly a fish out of water / coming of age story for Moon, who is found by Stone, a Raksura consort, and introduced to his Court, Indigo Cloud. It’s also a story about how Raksura court politics work, and about trying to rescue a colony from peril. I liked Moon and the other Raksura. I also liked, very much, his cranky groundling wife, and was glad to see her later in the story. I did kind of keep tripping over what everyone looked like, which was odd, because I’m not great at visualising characters at the best of time. But apparently, I do like to know what general shape they are, and this is relevant in fight scenes. And there were many, many, fight scenes.

(Now I know they are winged crocodiles, of course, everything makes sense.)

(Oh! Wait! Maybe they are pterodactyls! And the wingless ones are… velociraptors! This all makes sense now!)

All in all, it’s a good introduction to the world of the Raksura, and I’d happily read more, but I’m probably not going to. This is going to wind up fifth on my ballot – not because it isn’t good, but because it’s competing against a very strong field this year. It deserves to be nominated, but I don’t think it deserves to win.

Hugo reading 2018: City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Andrew had actually bought a copy of City of Stairs, the first book in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities series, so I decided to try the novelty of reading a paper book rather than on my Kobo.

The story begins with a man on trial for using a symbol of a Divinity as part of his advertising.  In this world, the Continentals are banned from any mention of their Divinities, or any use of their symbols, and thus also from studying any of their history, by the conquering Saypuri.  The trial is interrupted by the news that a Saypuri scholar, known for studying the history of the Continent has been murdered, apparently by Continentals enraged that a foreign colonist is permitted to study in depth something about them that they themselves are not allowed to know.

So at first glance, we have the wicked colonial power oppressing the downtrodden indigenous population, and we know what side we should be on.

Except that within a couple of chapters, we learn that the reason for the conquest of the Continent is that the Continentals and their Divinities had enslaved the Saypuri for centuries, until the Saypuri rose up in rebellion, killed the Divinities, and conquered their people.

Which puts a different complexion on the whole thing, and makes it a little harder to work out who is wrong.  And even that is an oversimplification, because while the Divinities are supposedly all dead, some of their Miracles still work, one of them disappeared long before the conquest, and there are few, if any, witnesses to the death of at least one of them.

So that is the general shape of the world, and the theology that comes with it is fairly fascinating, and also develops during the book. I liked the fact that the Continent was kind of underdeveloped in terms of science and technology, because the Divinities did everything for them – which gave the Saypuri a huge advantage once the Divinities were gone.  I also liked the way that belief seemed to have changed not just current reality, but history, although that also makes my head turn inside out in uncomfortable ways.

As to the plot – the viewpoint character is Shara Komayd, a Saypuri, and a descendent of the man who killed the Divinities.  She is a friend of the murdered man, and arrives incognito in Bulikov to investigate his death.  Shara is a professional spy, and a scholar of the history and miracles of the Continent, and she travels with an assistant, the piratical Sigrud, who is really excellent at violence.  She quickly finds that the murder has less to do with the scholar’s alleged studies than it has to do with Saypuri and Continental politics.  And possibly religious fanaticism, but then again, possible not.

Also, it turns out that one of the chief movers in Continental politics is her former friend and lover from University, Vohannes Votrov, who is charming and charismatic and tries to hide the fact that he prefers men, which is not OK in Bulikov.  (I have to say, I knew, absolutely and from the start, that there could be no romance between Shara and Vo, not really, but that didn’t stop me from wanting one, or wanting SOME kind of romantic pay off for Vo, because he was a delight.  And there was one, sort of, but it was pretty heartbreaking.)

I also need to mention the governor, Turyin Mulaghesh, who is a wonderfully laconic and practical former military woman who really wants her next posting to be somewhere peaceful, with beaches.  You can sort of tell early in the book that this is not what is going to happen.  She is far too good a character to waste on retirement.

Also, you might want to know that some terribly sad and upsetting things happen in this book.  Bring handkerchiefs.

This is a fascinating book, with complex world-building and excellent characters.  I’d definitely like to read more in the series, though given how much of the scenery got burned to the ground towards the end of the book, I’m wondering just where Bennett can go from here.  But following Mulaghesh around certainly strikes me as a sound strategy.

I don’t think Bujold’s Chalion series is beatable in this category, but this is very, very good, and I definitely want to read more of the series.  I’ve read all the InCryptid books, and like them a lot, but it’s hard to compare a full series against one book.  I’m not sure I have time to read the other two before the nomination season finishes, either, even if I give up on the ‘Best Editor: Short Form’ category entirely.

Anyway, I’m very glad I got to read this one.  It’s clever and twisty and has interesting theology, and the characters are people I care about.  It’s hard to go wrong with that combination.

Hugo reading 2018: The Way of Kings, by Brian Sanderson

I’ve actually read two of the series offered in full, and one in part, so I’m saving them until last, hoping to have time to reread them in part, but knowing that I can review them regardless.

That being so, I decided to start with Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer series.

Sanderson provided copies of the first three novels in this series, as well as an introductory packet for Hugo voters.  The introductory packet is an act of kindness – he talks about the series generally, but also acknowledges that not all of us want to read multiple volumes of 1,000+ pages in order to judge a Hugo category.  So he has a series of extracts as well, though he warns that they get spoilery eventually.

Because the series sounded interesting, and I wanted to reciprocate this kindness, I decided to eschew the extracts, and read the first book, The Way of Kings.

I shouldn’t have.

Look, I gave it 300 pages, and then I went back and read the extracts which were further on in the book, and I am now feeling a bit cranky, because those extracts were clearly the Good Bits, and now I sort of want to keep reading, only I’m barely a quarter of the way through and it is interminable.  Also, I’m a little disappointed, because Sanderson talks a lot in his introduction about trying to take a science fiction approach to epic fantasy – creating the flora, fauna, meteorology, etc that make sense for his world.  And… I believe that it’s all in there.  But none of it is evident in the first 300 pages.

This is the kind of epic fantasy with multiple protagonists, each carrying their own storyline, who will presumably meet each other at some climactic point at the book.  I tend to be the wrong audience for this sort of fantasy, because I am often only interested in one or two of the characters or storylines, and forget the names of the other characters, so that whenever we go back to those storylines I am confused and bored.

In this instance, there was one character, Kaladin, who I really liked and was interested in, but all the terrible things kept on happening to him, and while I’m pretty confident he will be the hero of the piece in the end, slogging through that much war and slavery and death was a bit much.  Another character, Shallan, had a really interesting storyline, and I wanted to like her, and Sanderson wanted me to like her too, but she seemed to be suffering from Male Author Is Unsure How To Write Likeable Female Characters syndrome.  At her first appearance, we discover that she is spirited and witty – but in a way that manifests itself in wittily turning any compliment anyone tries to give her into a self-deprecating insult.  I have a strong suspicion that this is meant to make her more likeable, but mostly it made me wince on her behalf.  She improves a bit after that, but she is having to carry the burden of being the only female protagonist in this book, and it’s not doing her character any good at all.

The other main thread seems to be centred around the King and the High Princes, who are constantly at war, mostly so that they can get the opportunity to hunt dangerous beasts for the magical artefacts that they harbour.  If this sounds like a D&D game to you… it did to me, too.  There is some interesting political manoevering going on, and there are characters questioning the need for endless war, and I wanted to care about this, but I didn’t.

There were some interesting things going on around the edges that I wanted more of, but lacked the patience to wait for (especially since… maybe they weren’t going to happen anyway?).  This is a culture where only the women can read and write, which of course means that they control information flow to the men.  But the men seem to be as socially and politically dominant as you would expect in a standard warlike Fantasy Land culture.  The women seem to have a bit more power, as advisors etc, but I’m frankly astonished that they don’t have more.  Also, the women button their left hands into their sleeves at puberty, and refer to them as their Safehands.  Their right hands are Freehands.  I want to know more about this!  Why do they do this? What does it mean?  And what happens if they are left handed?  Also, there is clearly some commentary about racism going on here, with the Darkeyes / Brighteyes thing.

I’m pretty sure the worldbuilding in this series is massive and thorough and interesting.  I would happily read an encyclopaedia about this world, in fact, because it’s clear that Sanderson has put a lot of time into figuring out exactly how everything works, and I bet it’s fascinating.

But I found that as a novel, the pace was interminably slow, and for me, it was a slog to read.  I am the wrong reader for this book, it seems.

Hugo reading 2017: Three Parts Dead, by Matt Gladstone

The concluding episode in my Hugo reading marathon!  Huzzah!

The Craft Sequence, by Matt Gladstone, consists of five novels so far.  We get all of them in the Hugo Voter Pack, and, due to time constraints, I have read only the first one.

By which I mean, I have read the third one, Three Parts Dead..

Gladstone provides us with a rather endearing introduction (this one, more or less) at the start of his omnibus, explaining that he wanted to explore different cities and cultures in his world, from the point of view of the people who lived in them, rather than having his protagonists journey from place to place, interacting with it. So rather than doing a consecutive series featuring the same characters, he wrote five books set in the same world, and planned for each of them to stand alone.  And he started writing in the middle, in terms of the world’s history, so he numbered that book three (he also, helpfully, made sure that each book had a number in its title, so that people could easily figure out the chronology).

For reasons that I’m not entirely sure I understand, he decided to set out the omnibus in publication order, not chronological order.  Hence, I read the third one, which is also the first one, and which is called Three Parts Dead.

This is a world which is recovering from the God Wars.  It’s not entirely clear exactly what happened in these wars, but it seems that the Gods fought the Craftsmen and Craftswomen, and many of them perished in the fight.  Craftsmen are necromancers and lawyers; the Gods have amazing powers, but these tend to be controlled by contracts with other Gods, cities, or undying Kings.  When they die, they can, in some circumstances, be resurrected, zombie-like, to fulfil their contracts in particular ways, but they aren’t really themselves anymore.  It’s fascinating, convoluted, and confusing.

At the beginning of this story, Kos Everburning, the God who rules and protects Alt Coloumb (I had a lot of trouble with that name, it kept making me think of Control-Alt-Delete, or Alt-Right), is dead, possibly murdered.  Tara, who has just begun working for the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, and her supervisor, Ms Kevarian are contracted to defend Kos in court, and make a case for his resurrection.  He needs defending, because if he has died due to negligence in his contracts, then he is liable to his various debtors.  Their opponent is Tara’s former Professor and nemesis, Denovo, who was also responsible for turning the city’s former moon goddess, and Kos’s consort, Seril, into Justice forty years earlier.  Justice contains Seril’s power, but none of her personality or her spirit – this is a worst-case-scenario for a resurrected God.

The plot is complicated, and we mostly see it through the eyes of Tara, the junior necromancer, and Abelard, a novice priest of Kos, and the one who was on altar duty when Kos died. The magic is quite horrifying.  For example, we occasionally see the world through the eyes of Catherine Elle, who works as a Blacksuit – one of Justice’s minions.  Blacksuits have no will of their own when they are on duty, and are controlled absolutely by Justice.  This is something of a high, and whenever Catherine is off duty, she seeks other sources for the high, which… is often not ideal.

I don’t really know how to review this book.  It’s hard to unpick it at the edges without risking unravelling it completely.  It’s complex, and cleverly thought out, and full of politics, the characterisation is great, there are moments of dry humour, and the ending is satisfying – though it did require a fair bit of the aftermath and prologue to make sense of what had happened.  Also, Gladstone managed to make the ending work without cheating, which I initially thought he had done.

I’ll definitely be reading the other books, and I’m now trying to decide whether this goes below or above October Daye on my ballot.  It’s definitely less dark, which is a plus; on the other hand, I know all the October Daye books are pretty good, and I don’t know where this series goes from here.

On reflection, I think my ballot goes Vorkosigan, Craft Sequence, Temeraire, October Daye, Rivers of London, The Expanse.  Temeraire might have been more fun than the Craft Sequence, but I think this was much cleverer.

Here ends the Hugo reading for 2017!  I may read the zines for my own interest, but there’s no way I’m going to have time to review them.  And it would be nice to read something for enjoyment, rather than critically and with the intent to compare it with everything else on the ballot.

Hugo reading 2017: Best Series

“What’s this?”, you say?  “Best series?  What happened to best novel?”

Well.  I was supposed to read Becky Chambers’ book, A Closed and Common Orbit next, but I just thought I’d have a teensy look at the first book in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, His Majesty’s Dragon, and the next thing I knew it was 2am and I was 200+ pages in and realising that I had to work in the morning.

(OK, I realised that well before this point, but I just didn’t care…)

So I wound up reading that first.  A quick note on the Best Series for me, by the way.  I’ve actually read everything in three of the series (serieses?) nominated this year, so I already know how they are ranked in relation to each other, and will write about them briefly here, but it’s hard to review an entire series, so I probably can’t do them justice.

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