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 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 (Tor.com) – 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 (Tor.com) – 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.