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Penric and the Shaman is the second novella in Lois McMaster Bujold's world of Five Gods subseries about the young demon-ridden divine. Several years have passed since Penric acquired the demon he calls Desdemona, and he has learned to work with both the altered perceptions and powers she gives him, and the personalities and memories of her ten previous hosts. He has come into his own as a sorcerer and a scholar, and has learned much about the nature of being a priest - and a priest of the trickster Bastard god at that.

All three aspects of his vocation are tested in this adventure. He is called on to assist Oswylt, a Locator of the Order of the Father, in his pursuit of a suspected murderer. The complication in this pursuit, which makes the presence of a demon-possessed sorcerer necessary, is that the suspect is a shaman, a practitioner of wild earth magic, who is himself possessed by the spirit of a Great Beast, and this possession gives him powers that can only be countered by a sorcerer's demon.

The pursuit of and eventual confrontation with the shaman Inglis is a test of Penric's abilities as sorcerer, scholar and priest - and it is also a fascinating exploration of the nature of the wild magic first seen in the novel The Hallowed Hunt, and how it relates to the religion of the Five Gods that has been so much a part of the other works set in this world.

The novella offers much - fine storytelling, growth and development of a character with great promise for many more stories, and a large amount of worldbuilding seamlessly integrated onto the story.

I've become quite fond of Penric and Desdemona, and am looking forward to reading about their further adventures.

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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Lois McMaster Bujold's latest entry in her long-running Vorkosigan series, is a domestic romance, with nary a hint of military action or undercover missions, and only the barest of political subplots. But that's just fine, because the romance is both sweet and mature, and it allows for many reminiscences that harken back to the earliest volumes of the series and remind us of a lifetime of events.

It also asks us to accept a revisioning of one of the central relationships of the series, that of Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. We learn, with very little warning, that for the latter decades of Aral's life, their relationship had been not one between two persons, but one between three - Aral, Cordelia, and Aral's one-time military secretary Oliver Jole. From conversations and recollections, we learn that Aral had been the one to bring Jole into the relationship, and with his death, Cordelia and Jole had not continued the relationship, although they remained friends.

The book opens three years after Aral's death, as Cordelia, Vicereine of the Barrayaran colony of Sergyar - the planet where Aral and Cordelia first met - returns after a voyage to Barrayar. She is met, as befits her rank, by Jole in his capacity as Admiral and commander of the Barrayaran troops in Sergyar space.

Slowly, they discover that time has sufficiently healed the wounds made by Aral's loss that they are both ready to contemplate relationships again - and that they are drawn to each other even without Aral to be the bond between them.

Romance between mature adults is rare in fiction, and thus a delightful thing to read. One aspect of their growing relationship and how they handle multiple issues that could derail it is that being mature and intelligent people, they don't keep secrets or hide things, they talk to each other. They know that communication, not sex, is what keeps a a relationship of the level of intimacy they desire alive year after year. I was so delighted to read a romance that is not riddled with the standard foolishness of lovers who can't be honest with each other.

Family and continuance is also at the core of this gentle romance. Miles, Ekaterin and their children make a significant entrance, and Miles' clone/brother Mark and his partner are clearly part of the family even if not present. Even more, the developing relationship between Cordelia and Jole is woven around Cordelia's plans to use preserved genetic material from Aral and herself and extrauterine reproductive technology to have the daughters that she and Aral never had the time to bring into the world. And she offers Jole the use of some of Aral's genetic material, and several of her own ennucleated ova, so that he can, if he wishes, have sons who will be both his and Aral's.

In this novel, all the action, all the suspense, is driven by decisions surrounding relationship, and yet it captivated me as much as any high-octane thriller.

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Lois McMaster Bujold's novella Penric's Demon is set in her World of the Five Gods, and like the three novels she has written in that secondary universe, it deals with a relatively unsuspecting person who finds themselves caught up in the doings of the Gods and and other supernatural beings.

Penric is the youngest son of a somewhat impoverished and not particularly important noble house. A naive young man without any discernible gifts or talents, he has no real future other than marriage to a local girl of good family and a life of helping out his brother the baron around the estate.

But then, while he's on his way to his betrothal, everything changes. Stopping to perform a small act of charity for a dying woman, he finds himself possessed of, or by, a powerful demon, a creature of sorcery and of the Bastard God. And it is in this act, and in coming to terms with the old and powerful demon he has inherited, that we realise that Penric indeed has a powerful gift, and one that is sadly lacking in both his world and our own - a greatness and generosity of spirit.

Penric's Demon is a well-crafted - and at times very funny - tale of an engaging young man and a powerful demon, who through their connection become much more than either would have become without it.

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I follow a lot of authors who write both science fiction and fantasy series. New volumes in ongoing series read in 2012:

Tanya Huff, The Wild Ways

The second novel about the Gale family, whose women are strangely gifted and powerful and whose men - rare in a family of many sisters, aunties and nieces - are the embodiment of the Horned God. The full story of what and who the Gales are is slowly unfolding as Huff tells stories about its various members, and I'm sure there is more to come.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Lord Vorpatril's Alliance

Now that Miles Vorkosigan is settled into a title, important court function and family, Bujold has turned her attention to one of the people in Miles' inner circle. An improvement on Cryoburn, largely because the new focus lets Bujold play wild games with her characters again.

Elizabeth Moon, Echoes of Betrayal

This follow-up series to Moon's Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter series just keeps developing more and more twists and taking a wider scope with each volume. I'm thinking by the end that we will know a lot more about the history and future of this world, and that's a good thing.

Charles R. Saunders, The Trail of Bohu (Revised)

The third volume of Saunders' exceptional Imaro series was first published decades ago, and revised recently now that the new era of self-publishing has finally allowed him to complete the series. Although I had read the original version when it was first published, between revisions and the passage of time, thiswas very much a new book for me. And it sets up the coming confrontation between Imaro and his life-long enemies very well.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Burning Shadows

Somehow I never tire of the Count Saint Germain, warrior, healer, alchemist, vampire. This one is set in 5th century Hungary and Romania, where the Count faces the coming of the Huns.

Michelle Sagara, Cast in Silence
Michelle Sagara, Cast in Chaos
Michelle Sagara, Cast in Ruin

Finally almost caught up with Sagara West's Elantra Chronicles featuring Private Keylin Neya.

Todd McCaffrey, Dragongirl
Todd and Anne McCaffrey, Dragon’s Time
Todd McCaffrey, Sky Dragons

Fare thee well to Anne McCaffrey, creator of Pern and other worlds. I've been reading her work for most of my life, it seems, and while I have issues with her gender politics, still I can't ignore what a key figure she was in science fiction. And as Todd McCaffery cones into his own as inheritor of his mother's creations, I'm hoping to see more originality and more of the greater awareness of sexual and gender diversity and equality that he has been bringing to the series.

Kevin Hearne, Hexed
Kevin Hearne, Hammered
Kevin Hearne, Tricked
Kevin Hearne, Two Ravens and One Crow (novella)
Kevin Hearne, Trapped

Atticus O'Sullivan (born Siodhachan O Suileabhain), the 2000 year-old Druid with a sharp wit and enough magical power to take on a god or two, is one of the most enjoyable new characters I've encountered in some time. The Iron Druid Chronicles are fast-paced and truly funny. I hope Hearne has quite a few more brewing in the back of his mind.
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I read some science fiction novels that weren't re-reads in 2010, too, and found all of them quite enjoyable. New (to me) authors Sarah Zettel, John Scalzi, and Helen S. Wright were all discoveries to be savoured - Wright's book A Matter of Oaths in particular, as it is the only book she has published, and is a very good read, with an original setting,strong worldbuilding, and interesting characters. I have heard rumours that she is working on a new book - I hope it's true.

The most eagerly anticipated SF novels I read in 2010 were Jo Walton'sHalf a Crown - the excellent ending to a brilliant and chilling examination of how easily a people can be led into embracing a fascist and hate-mongering state - and Lois McMaster Bujold's Cryoburn, the latest volume in the highly entertaining saga of Miles Vokosigan.

Rounding out the year's new reading in science fiction were a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Moon, a John Wyndham novel I had somehow missed before now, another of Todd McCaffrey's books expanding on the world and history of Pern created by his mother, the late and sadly missed Anne McCaffrey, and one of Sharon Shinn's Samaria novels.

Elizabeth Moon, Moon Flights

John Wyndham, Web

Todd McCaffey, Dragonheart

Jo Walton, Half a Crown

Sharon Shinn, The Alleluia Files

Sarah Zettel, Fools’ War

John Scalzi, Old Man’s War
John Scalzi, The Ghost Brigades
John Scalzi, The Last Colony

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cyroburn

Helen S. Wright, A Matter of Oaths

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And now I have read the last of the Miles Vorkosigan novels. It took some time to locate Memory, as it doesn’t seem to have been reprinted nearly as often as the others in the series, And of course I had to wait until everything else had been read before I could read the last book of the series, Diplomatic Immunity.

It’s been a wonderful ride. Miles Vorkosigan is one of the few disabled science fiction heroes, and that’s struck a real chord with me from the beginning. Even after advanced medicine fixes most of the physical limitations caused by his brittle bone syndrome, he still thinks like a person with a disability – not unreasonable, since that’s what he grew up as, and that’s in part how the society he was born into and chose to remain in thinks of him – as a weakling a “mutant,” a damaged being, despite his courage and intelligence and political influence.

It’s a good ending, to see him established in his own country, happily married, a proud parent, with important work to do.

Ave atque Vale, Miles.

At least until I re-read your story again. Or Bujold decides she has something more to day about you.

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Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve read reviews that referred to Falling Free as one of Bujold’s “weaker” works, despite the fact that it won the 1988 Nebula Award for best science fiction novel of the year. Let’s just agree that it lacks the full maturity of her later works, and go on to talk about what I think it does very well.

The book is set in the Vor universe, but 200 years before the time of Bujold’s most famous character, Miles Vorkosigan. The plot is fairly simple: Engineer Leo Graf is hired by a megacorporation Ampad, which is building a space station, to train a work crew in freefall building techniques. What he does not know until he gets to his assignment is that, in an experiment designed to reduce labour costs resulting from the need to rotate freefall workers planetside on a frequent basis so that they don’t acclimatise permanently to freefall, Ampad has genetically engineered workers “designed” to live in freefall. As he teaches the workers, known as Quaddies because they have four arms rather than two arms and two legs – the better to manipulae objects in a freefall environment – he also discovers that Ampad considers the Quaddies to be chattel rather than human beings with civil rights, and that it is keeping the Quaddies in a deliberate state of ignorance about the universe outside the station on which they were created and are now being trained. Ampad is also keeping the Quaddies a secret from everyone outside the corporation, because it expects the quaddies to be a major cost-saving advantage in bidding on contracts.

Then comes the plot turn. Artificial gravity is invented. It’s no longer necessary to rotate work crews. The Quaddies are no longer a hidden advantage, and they’re now costing more in development and maintenance than a standard contract workforce would.

And we all know what corporations do with chattels that have become financial liabilities rather than income-producing assets.

Bujold packs some very interesting and important topics for consideration into this story, beginning with the whole issue of genetic engineering of organisms for specific purposes. Then there’s the question of whether such purposefully designed organisms can be exclusive property – which in the case of an intelligent organism means slavery. And of course, the whole plot is a detailed examination of how, in the corporate world, ethics goes right out the spacelock door when the profit and loss statment is on the table.

The book also looks at the issue of difference – not just prejudice against beings that are not like us, but what it means to be differently abled, and when a physical advantage becomes a disability – two-legged humans are disadvantaged in freefall, while Quaddies are disadvantaged in gravitational fields. Another strong focus of the book is an exploration of the different ways that people deal with being placed in a situation where they know they are engaged in activities that are ethically insupportable – why do some people keep accommodating, and others finally stop and say “This cannot be allows to continue,” and how much will they sacrifice to a greater good?

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I have recently devoured Lois McMaster Bujold’s three fantasy novels set in the Chalion universe – a fantasy world that appears to draw much of its initial inspiration from medieval Spain.

I can’t recommend these highly enough to readers of fantasy who want a combination of strong and realistic characters, entertaining adventure, and sophisticated exploration of philosophical and religious issues all in a superbly crafted package.

The novels in question are:

Curse of Chalion
Paladin of Souls
The Hallowed Hunt

The first two are set in the feudal Kingdom of Chalion, and deal with what could have been fairly standard fantasy hero-quest adventures involving the breaking of ancient curses and saving the country from supernatural assault by the evil ruler of an opposing kingdom.

But you know that something different is going on when the heroes are, respectively, a middle-aged, worn-out and broken-spirited former courtier who has spent years as a galley slave following a humiliating defeat, and an equally middle-aged and broken-spirited dowager suspected of going mad following the death of her husband. These are fallible people with real aches and sorrows and memories of defeats and guilt and misgivings, who find somewhere inside themselves the will to serve the needs of their people.

This is also a land where the gods – there are five of them, the Mother, the Father, the Son, the Daughter and the Bastard, all seen in their own way as essential to the smooth functioning of the world – are real and attempt to intervene in the lives of humankind in order to bring about balance. But this is a universe where the gods really have given their children free will, and thus when Bujold’s heroes and saints are called to act, they have every right to refuse, to delay, to ignore the hints and promptings of their gods.

The third book, The Hallowed Hunt, is set in Darthaca, several hundred years prior to the two Chalion novels, but like the others, it features heroes (and villains) who behave like real people who’ve have been battered around a bit by life, and are swept up, unwitting, in events that at first seem far too vast for them to cope with.

These are protagonists that it’s easy to identify with, and the stakes are high and the risks seem real, because these are people who could fail, precisely because they are only human and we know from their pasts that they have failed before. And behind the action, there are some very interesting explorations of the nature of sacrifice, redemption, free will and divine providence – and as you may have gathered, I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. Put it all together, and it’s well worth the reading.

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In other serial reading, I have read two more books in Lois McMaster Bujold's series of books about Miles Vorkosigan, diplomat, courtier, spy (now retired), leader of a mercenary space fleet (now retired), and possibly the best-known hero with disabilities in all of science fiction.

In Komarr, there has been a serious accident in space that threatens an massive terraforming project, and Miles is dispatched in his new function as Imperial Auditor to determine if it was really an accident. The investigation morphs into a spy-terrorist plot thriller, and is all very standard Vorkosigan stuff, with one major exception - Miles is falling in love. With a woman that he really shouldn't be having anything to do with.

A Civil Campaign pursues the very tricky matter of Miles' love life against a background of court plots and significant challenges to Barrayar's very conservative thoughts on gender and sex.

Both are fun to read, and my only complaint is that after this, there is only one Miles Vorkosigan book left in the series.
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I have been reading a lot of novels in series lately. I like series. I love plots that go on for volumes and volumes and characters that grow and change and themes that are developed layer upon layer.

Lately, I have begun reading, or completed reading, or read a few more books in the middle of, the following series. All of these series, obviously, are ones that I have or am enjoying highly, because if I weren't, why on earth would I have read more than the first volume?

The Miles Korkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Brothers in Arms
Mirror Dance

What is there not to love about a runty little hero with a brittle bone disability, a brilliant mind and a gift for profound deviousness and intrigue who's trying to face down a birth culture in which physical prowess and manliness is everything, while making a name for himself as a mercenary captain and concealing his mission as an interstellar intelligence agent?

I read the first novels in this series a long time ago, when they first came out, and then a couple of years back, when I happened to notice just how many more of them Bujold had written, I re-read the older ones and am now in the process of reading the neweer ones. Bujold's is smart, and often funny milsf adventure with some very nice exploration of both gender politics and disability issues, and some very nice political intrigue.

The Diana Tregarde Mysteries, by Mercedes Lackey
Children of the Night
Jinx High

Completing my re-read of this urban fantasy series, which alas has only three volumes. Diana Teegarde is a Guardian, a person who is gifted with strong supernatural and/or psychic gifts and the ability to perform magic, and has accepted the responsibility to use these gifts to oppose those - both human and inhuman - who would use such powers for evil.

As with many of Lackey's novels, there's a distinct pagan-friendly and queer-positive vibe, a strong female protagonist, children at risk and some clearly defined heroes and villians.

The Jenny Casey trilogy by Elizabeth Bear

Ok, if you like hard sf, strong female protagonists, cyberpunk (although Bear has argued that it is actually post-cyberpunk), geopolitical sf, or just plain good writing with great characters and complex, action-filled plots about important human issues, go read Bear's novels about Master Warrant Officer Genevieve Casey. If you want some details first, you can find them at Elizabeth Bear's website.

I was enthralled by these books - quite literally, I read them one after another over the course of about two days. Compelling, thought-provoking, and exciting reading.

The Dragon Temple Trilogy, by Janine Cross
Touched by Venom
Shadowed by Wings
Forged by Fire

These are not easy books to read. I'll give you that warning right now. Over the course of these three novels, the young female protagonist - who is only a child when the books begin - experiences just about every kind of abuse you can imagine, as a child, as a female, as a slave, as a political prisoner, as a gender rebel, as a racial minority, as a member of an oppressed socio-economic class, as an addict, as an enforced victim/participant of a religious cult, as a recruit in a brutal quasi-military training program, and probably as several more identities that are traditionally targets of institutionalised as well as individual abuse that I hadn't noticed.

Some people have dismissed these works as violent pornography, others have seen them as a deeply disturbing dystopia with a profound feminist and anti-oppression stance. I'm defintely in the latter camp on this - sometimes it's important to remember just how bad things not just can be, but are for people who are not privileged (as I imagine many of the readers of this blog are, at least in some ways).

There is a great review by Liz Henry up at Strange Horizons that not only looks at the first book in the series from a feminist and anti-oppression perspective, but also examines the vastly divergeant opinions people have voiced about the book.

The Company Novels, by Kage Baker
Sky Coyote
Mendoza in Hollywood
The Graveyard Game

I read the first volume in the series, In the Garden of Iden, earlier this year, and was very much intrigued with the set-up - time-travelling for profit, with entreprenuers from the future conscripting orphans throughout history to become immortal collectors of vanished artworks, cultural histories, extinct specimens, and all sort of other things worth saving - if someone is going to profit by it. It was claer from the very first that there were some unanswered questions about the whole enterprise, and as the series has continued, that's proving to be even truer than I'd expected.

The key continuing characters - Mendoza, saved from the Spanish Inquisition as a child, and Joseph, her recruiter, himself rescued from a massacre of his family group in 20,000 BCE by Budu, an even older Immortal of whom much is heard but little is seen in the books I have read so far - find themselves and their associates withing the Company increasing confronted by mysteries about who really runs the Company, the source of the technology that made both time travel and their own immortality possible, the real motives of the increasing large number of factions associated with the Company, its operatives and controllers, the growing number of disapperaing immortals, and most mysterious of all, what happens after 2355 - the year in which all communications from the future to the operatives and immortals stationed all throughout human history (and pre-history) cease.

Political intrigue on a truly grand scale. I'm loving this series.


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