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 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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Hugo reading 2017: Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold

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.

Hugo reading 2016: Novellas

OK, we are on to the novellas, and at least I’ve already read one of these and know it is good.

Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (Dragonsteel Entertainment) – I was liking this one, even though it was set in yet another virtual reality / computer game world (I feel like half the stories so far have been like this).  It was well-written, I was really enjoying the characters, the main female character was a heap of fun – and then we had the plot twist, which trashed the only female character in a way that was basically a cliché cake filled with cliché whipped cream and cliché jam, with cliché icing on top.  It certainly doesn’t deserve a no award – it’s a well written and enjoyable story, but boy, that annoyed me.  And it’s doubly infuriating because the author didn’t have to do that – he was clearly capable of more interesting things.  Gah.

The Builders by Daniel Polansky ( – I’m afraid I just found this one boring and far too predictable – the dialogue, in particular, I felt like I had read many times before -and I didn’t really care about any of the characters.  I gave up at the 38% mark.  This might be unfair, but if you can’t hold my attention for the whole book – and I really did try to give it a fair shot – you probably don’t deserve my vote on the ballot.

Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon) – Surprisingly, I really liked this one.  I say surprisingly, because the opening scene had the heroine being tied down and tortured by the villain of the piece, and this was described (mostly in anticipation) in more detail than I, personally, needed.  And then it turned into a kind of ‘last survivors after a terrible, world-ending thing’ sort of story, which is also not my style.  But somehow, the focus in the end was on building and reconstructing and trying to find a way to survive as a community, and it was interestingly character-driven, and actually rather lovely and inspiring in some ways.  A worthy nomination, I feel.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor ( – Another good story, and unexpectedly peaceful.  I don’t know how to describe it without massive spoilers, but I liked it very much.  I liked the main character and her sense of self, particularly.

Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum) – Look, I love Bujold’s Five Gods universe, and this is no exception.  I like Penric, and I like the way he tries to treat his demon like a person, and I like Desdemona, too.  Very happy to see this on the ballot.

I’m not quite sure what my final ballot order is.  Probably Penric, then Binti, then Slow Bullets, then Perfect State, then No Award, but I’m just not sure.  I loved Penric’s Demon, but I’m not sure that Binti isn’t the better book.

Sonnet: Ista’s God

This sonnet was written for a character in Lois McMaster Bujold’s brilliant fantasy novel, Paladin of Souls.  It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous book, which I recommend to everyone and anyone.


The Gods’ great curses come to us as gifts
Of bitter hope, in answer to our prayer
Safer by far the silence of despair
Than damnèd sainthood, ruin that uplifts.
Let others try to mend what has been done
Your riddles are too cruel for my belief
They’ve left me empty, riddled with my grief
My cup is shattered. Lost. Leave me alone.
You, Bastard God, I am not yours to use.
The hostages your Mother had are gone:
I am bereft of husband, mother, son
Nothing to force my choice – yet I must choose.
And strangely, now, it seems I’ve found my place:
I’ll serve you well – and curse you to your face.

Song: Vorthalia The Bold (no apologies required, for once)

This is the putative title song for the ‘historical’ children’s show about Lord Vorthalia The Bold, mentioned in Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel A Civil Campaign, which you should certainly read, because it is wonderful.

To the tune of Pinky and the Brain


Vorthalia the Bold!
Vorthalia the Bold!
Legendary Hero
In days of Old
With brawn as well as brain
He’ll save the day again!
Vorthalia the Bold, bold, bold, bold
Bold, bold, bold, bold

In isolation time
With villains great or small
When it came to fighting crime
He was the best of all!


He can fight in any strife
With sword or mace or hook
With a cleaver or a knife
He’s better than a cook!


When dimmer heroes fall
His wits will stay the course
For it’s known to one and all
That he’s smarter than his horse!


The ladies love his air
And in charm he has no peers
Though their families may glare
No basil pot he fears!


Politic’ly astute
The Council he could sway
For he knew that in a vote
Lord Midnight would say “Neigh!”.


When in a treas’nous plot
His rivals did conspire
He knew well that one must not
Set the cat on fire!


He’d an educator’s mind
In service to the State
To the Council he defined
The verb ‘defenestrate’


His love seemed doomed to fail
For his wife he had to sue
Though declared both Count and male
She was a countess too!


So watch and listen here
And you’ll hear the story told
Of a hero without peer –
Of Vorthalia the Bold!

Vorthalia the Bold!
Vorthalia the Bold!
His deeds are uncounted,
His virtues untold!
With brawn as well as brain
He’ll save the day again!
Vorthalia the Bold, bold, bold, bold
Bold, bold, bold, bold

* this spelling to indicate a three-syllable pronunciation of Vorthalia, instead of the usual four.Collapse