Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Hugo Review: Best Novella - Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold is a mystery, a theological text and a rip-roaring story.

I think this is the first Bujold I've reviewed for this year's Hugo. She's also been nominated for best series. I can't really describe how much I like Bujold's work, nor how much it's helped me over the past few years to get past tough times. I have a tendency to reread works that give me great comfort, and Bujold's work has been at the top of my reread list for many years now. This story is the second one featuring Penric the Sorcerer in the World of the Five Gods. Both the Five Gods series and the Vorkosigan series are my comfort reads, and I can't tell you how nice it is to have new stories in both universes out this past year.

So, keep in mind that I am biased toward Bujold and will be fighting my natural instinct to put her at the top of every ballot.

The good: This story revisits the concept of shamans, which was explored in The Hallowed Hunt. As it is set some 150 years after that story, shamans are becoming common again. It's a murder mystery, sort of, as an inspector is sent to find a man suspected of murder. I really enjoyed the framing of the story this way, giving us an outside look at just how odd Penric is to any observer. He wouldn't exactly be a restful guy to have around. I loved his "printing press" design - how do you make things when your power is purely destructive? It would also be nice to have Penric around while camping. No fleas, lice or mosquitoes are going to be a problem with him. The story is tightly plotted, with each incident leading to the next. And the ending, where Penric's written testimony is immediately seized as a theological document made me laugh.

The bad: Give me a few months more and I probably could come up with something I don't like about this story. But for the moment, it feels to me to be perfect. If there is any problem with Bujold's writing, it would be that it isn't excellent in a mind-bending way. There are wonderful concepts (the ideas of saints in the Five Gods stories truly made me sit and think) but her work doesn't twist a person like some writers can. I don't consider this a fault at all, but let me use last year's Hugo as an example. I LOVED Penric's Demon, but Binti truly twisted my mind and forced me to think differently. Again, not a fault, but something to keep in mind. Is the best of the year something that forces a reader to think, or something that makes them truly happy? Ideally, it's both... but what if you have to pick between the two?

Conclusion: At the moment this is at the top of my ballot. Once I've read the other five finalists we'll see if Bujold's ability to inspire joy in me is enough to keep this story there.

Best Novella: I've read Penric and the Shaman. I need to read The Ballad of Black Tom, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Every Heart a Doorway, A Taste of Honey, and This Census-Taker.