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.