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Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

3/5. Sequel novella about Penric, the accidental host to a demon. An inquirer from the Father's Order sweeps Pen (and company) into his investigation of a shamanic ritual gone wrong.

More interesting than the prior novella, largely because Penric is more interesting with several years of demonic and scholarly experience to his name. At first blush this was some pretty typical LMB ground about a young person in the wreck left after he did something young and stupid. But there's a bit more to it, to the question of being late when you are needed, to the difficulties of trusting in providence when it sounds like just noise. So there's more here, and it's a pleasant read.

I do think that she is . . . growing overly attached to some of her pet techniques. She has a particular fondness for propagating paired adjective/adverbs to repeat and alter through a chain of sentences, usually with a touch of ironic humor. But it's so distinctive and specific – it's the sort of wordplay that makes you very particularly conscious of reading a story, not just of experiencing it – and it only works when it's, you know . . . well done. It isn't always, these days. I found myself flipping back through a few passages in this novella and shaking my head at the misfires. We all need to update our favorite writerly tics sometimes, it's okay!

I bring this up not to be picky about technique, but also because of the bigger sense that a lot of her writing is of a sameness these days: pleasant and predictable, never surprising.
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Penric's Demon

3/5. A Five Gods novella. Through (random?) circumstance, a rural lord's younger son on the way to his wedding unintentionally comes into the possession of a demon. Subject and object purposefully left unclear in that last bit.

This is a pleasing, if inconsequential little tale. Maybe I've just read too much LMB, but I understood pretty much everything about this story by a third of the way through and nodded along comfortably to the end. Our protagonist is rather unformed – as a person, I mean, not a character – which is a bit of a departure for this universe. The whole thing works a bit better if one imagines onself, the reader, rather like the demon in Pen's head: significantly smarter than him, and seeing a great deal more through his eyes than he does. But even those things were not terribly complex or interesting.

Still, comfortable and rather sweet. Good for completists, I guess.
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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

4/5. ARC. I don't have an overarching summation, so here, have some bullet point thoughts:

• This is A Civil Campaign level plotless social drama. By which I mean the social drama is the plot. This book has a climactic picnic scene, okay. Not nearly as funny as ACC, though.

• Portions of this book are set inside a futuristic fertility clinic, and it made me smile, because yeah. Fertility clinics are fuckin' weird, and conceiving by science is fuckin' weird, and this book had a finger nicely on that.

• Lois McMaster Bujold learned the word 'monosexual,' you guys! *wipes tear*. She still, unfortunately, has not quite grasped that one's sexuality in re the genders one is attracted to is an entirely separate facet from one's sexuality in re how many partners one wishes to have. Which is weird, considering just how many people have taken her to task over the year's for Cordelia's infamous summation of Aral: "He used to be bisexual, now he's monogamous." (Hint: bisexual doesn't actually mean simultaneously banging people of two different genders. A bisexual person doesn't become straight by marrying someone of another gender, or queer by marrying smoene of the same gender. No really, my extended family, I still get to be bisexual, fuck right off). Aaaaanyway, despite having apparently regreted the prior Cordelia observation, LMB still doesn't seem to quite get it. And more fundamentally . . . for anyone who doesn't know, I guess this is a spoiler? Though I'd assume everyone knows by now – this book is about what happens when there is a long-term V relationship with occasional jaunts into triangle, and then the point of the V dies, and how the two left come back to each other, eventually. And this book is . . . very concerned with people's queerness, and like, negative a million percent concerned with polyamory. I exaggerate there are a few throwaway comments on that aspect, but by and large, this book just doesn't . . . notice? It's like, the queerness of the queerness all but swallows the queerness of the poly, which are two very different things, thankyouverymuch. And that disappointed me.

• I said it before on twitter when the spoilers first broke, and I'll say it again: Miles spending decades of adolescent and adult life oblivious to his parents's queerness and polyamory is A++++++. Because yep. He would

• Things I quite liked: this is a book about single parenting by choice, and non-traditional families, and gamete donation, and yeah, that was really good for me.

• Less good. Everyone must have babies. Everyone. Everyone. Babies are not optional. If you are in this verse and you think you do not want babies, well, that's just because you didn't think about it right, and as soon as a real possibility is presented to you, babies you will want and babies you will have. Babies babies babies.

• Another thing I liked: Cordelia is living a long, varied life. She is in her seventies here, embarking on the fourth or fifth major life change. There is a lovely and subversive sense of her as a woman in her prime, in the middle of it all. And also a lovely evocation of how an ideal long-lived future might be, where you could have multiple successive phases of family-building and work, and family-building again, on the scale of decades, without being rushed by biology. Being rushed by loss and grief, though, of course.

• I miss Gregor. I have always, always wanted the Gregor book that Vor Game was actually not.

• This book feels like an end, in a way none of the prior books that were maybe sorta an end did. I don't know why, it just does. I'd be okay with that, actually.
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Captain Vorpatril's AllianceCaptain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Or as I have been calling it for over a year, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ivan Vorpatril?.

Which was a little bit snide of me. Apologies to anyone who was there in June when I co-modded a panel and have already heard me going on about Bujold’s tendency to solve people’s lives like equations. Who is your perfect mate, what is your perfect challenge? What is the thing that balances you? How can we write the equals sign, reduce you to a simpler function, and be done with it? Which is both true and unfair to say – most fiction is in this business to some extent or other, and I’ve actually loved the way she does it. I was just a little worried she’d solve Ivan the way she eventually solves pretty much everybody: by pairing him off, marching him onto the arc two-by-two, and tossing some babies at him.

And yep, she pretty much did that. And I’ll shut up (for now), because I loved it.

I didn’t love it centrally as a romance, though I did enjoy that aspect, and the lady in question is great. Marriage of, um, convenience is not quite the right word -- marriage of expediency is not really my kink, but this was charming. (Also, I can’t help noticing Tej is a smirking, tongue-in-cheek, “oh yeah?” response to all those people who wanted to see Ivan paired up with a Haut lady. Heh.) But I really loved the shape of it, how it’s all about being the one person who doesn’t quite fit into an extraordinary family, not because you don’t measure up but just because you’ll have to shout down some of the biggest personalities in a three light-year radius to be noticed, and who wants to do that? It’s about just wanting to live your life, and how that can appear small and unworthy when you’re surrounded by families like Ivan’s and Tej’s, but how really it’s not at all, it’s great, it’s perfect.

And mostly I loved the indulgence of this book. It basically took a big pile of what I love about this universe (Miles and Alys and Gregor and Simon (Simon Simon Simon!) and heaped it up, and flung itself on top. And then delivered a moment of such wry, perfect Bujoldian hilarity that made me snigger so unexpectedly I almost fell over on the train. You'll know it when you see it, trust me.

This is how you solve a problem like Ivan Vorpatril. And it is really, really sad to me that this universe is running out of problems, because no matter what I say, I love watching her solve them.

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CryoBurn (Vorkosigan Saga, #14)CryoBurn by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ah. I got an ARC of this two weeks ago, and it’s a mark of just how fucked in the head I was by the bar exam that I couldn’t even crack it open until now. But I did at last, and ah, it was good.

This is a romp. In fact I’d go so far as to say in some places it’s a caper. Basically, it’s a hundred thousand words of Miles repeatedly happening to people. These people generally start out unsuspecting, but by the end are learning to brace for impact, even if they’re curled up in the fetal position and whimpering on the inside.

Except be careful for the corners and edges on this caper, because some of them will cut you. Like most of this series, this book contemplates a bit of speculative technology – cryo freezing and reviving, here – and asks a lot of penetrating questions about the sociopolitical fallout. Without, thank God, being didactic or prescriptive or blankly alarmist or utopian. This is a book about the institutions of death when death is temporary. Except – and I’m paraphrasing Miles here, because he sums this up nicely for us at one point – institutions and corporations and political machines are just big groups of people mostly moving in the same direction. They might feel like they’ll live forever, but they’re just us, too, and we certainly don’t.

Except when we kind of do, and how voting power would be allocated to frozen people, not to mention the economics of it (I slapped a hand over my face and laugh-groaned a lot over the commodified cryo corpse contract swaps, because ahaha, yes, that is so fucking trufax). Then again, I clearly still am fucked in the head by the bar exam, because I also thought in a frantic gabble at one point, “does this planet have an inherited Rule Against Perpetuities? Because if the voting interests don’t vest within 21 years of the end of a life in being – and technically they’re not lives in being – then the conveyances are void oh my God what is wrong with me?”

To everyone who actually understood that: I am so, so sorry.

Ahem. The point. This book is not a disappointment. It is fun and hilarious and chewy. It is also a lot more conscious of Miles’s privilege than previous volumes, in ways I appreciated. Really, one of the best things that happened to this series was the introduction of roving point-of-view, because there are so very many things that Miles does not know about himself; his quite literal entitlement is often one of them.

And then it ends with a quintet of drabbles. Really good drabbles, the kind that feel like really good haiku, where saying the perfect thing in the perfect, tiny package makes writing like origami or something else beautiful and precise and intense. Ouch.

The title isn't any better after reading, though.

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Horizon (The Sharing Knife, #4) Horizon by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In which this four-book romance fantasy wanders – by which I mean plot? What plot? – to a close – by which I mean babies for all!

Yikes. A friend called this the "never-ending beige adventure," which made me laugh. More than the book did.

I'm feeling kind of cranky about this book. It's intellectually boring, with a thematic conversation (communication, clashing and changing paradigms, etc.) little deeper than your average morality play. I could forgive intellectual boredom for emotional interest – God knows I've done that before. But my emotional needle didn't so much as quiver throughout. I will say that the book is at least prettily, if . . . rustically written. And I don't usually get cranky over boring, because boring for me is a great romance for someone else (though, I've never met anyone who was actually really moved by this particular series . . . Bueller?).

No, the real problem is the explicit and implicit helping of babymaking propaganda. Did you guys know that the purpose of marriage is babies? Didya didya didya? The sheer amount of moral imperative this series piles on reproduction – though, okay, not always heteronormatively – is staggering because half of it is delivered with this 'duh' of universal unarguable truth, which, um, no, and the other half feels entirely unconscious and kind of uncomfortable as a glimpse of author id to me. The older I get, the more toxic that becomes. Yeurgh.

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Apr. 14th, 2009 08:47 pm
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The Sharing Knife: Passage (Volume 3) The Sharing Knife: Passage by Lois McMaster Bujold

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Book three in this romance-fantasy quartet with the cross-cultural marriage. Okay, maybe . . . maybe there's a reason you don't see much midwestern-influenced fantasy out there?

Wait, no, I'm being cheap. See, here's the thing:

Dag said more slowly, "He was just an ordinary patroller, before his knife got broken. But if ordinary folks can't fix the world, it's not going to get fixed. There are no lords here. The gods are absent."

Putting aside that this is an incredibly disingenuous thing for Dag to say, considering he's spent the series developing his unexpected magic powers. She's written books about lords and books about gods, and in theory I'm all on board for a universe that changes up those power discourses. It just turns out, I don't particularly want it to be this universe, where the solution to the world's troubles appears to be a thought just a few notches above 'can't we all just get along.' And also a universe where Dag calls Fawn "child" when they're in bed, argh argh argh! Where was I? Oh, right. There's homespun wisdom, sure, but mostly these are truths so simplified, they've lost all their density for me.

I suspect someone raised in this dialect, in the region that inspired these landscapes and this river, would find more here. I . . . didn't.

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Apr. 14th, 2009 07:44 pm
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Komarr (Vorkosigan) Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Wow, this book is a lot less complicated than I remember from the first and only time I read it five years ago. (Though actually, it's equally fair that I'm a much more complicated reader, so).

It's a good book – unfolding mystery, wit, emotional tension, new landscapes for the universe. It's just the thematic punches were far more straight-on than I remember – keep an eye out for things that fall in this book and things that are caught, add a twist of identity games, and you've pretty much got it. Two unrelated observations:

1. Wow, it's kind of amazing how Ekaterin codes perfectly as a lesbian trapped in a miserable heterosexual marriage for the first half of this book. From a certain set of textual reading habits, that's exactly what her exhaustion and distance and sexual disconnection mean.

2. You know, I've studied politics and I've studied psychology, and I much less seriously dabbled in history. And I am still really unconvinced by the Komarr integration scheme. I just flat out don't buy it as anything more than naive hope, and, um, Aral Vorkosigan is not naive. He does have a reason to want to redeem the subjugation of Komarr, though, huh. But, I mean, seriously? Two separate planets with a huge spatial and communications gap, a bloody and highly resented conquering (I'm not the only one who keeps analogizing to Ireland, right?), and a completely different cultural conception of power structures are supposed to integrate via the occasional cross-cultural marriage? Ooooooh-kay…

Anyway. The last scene of this book still made me squeal and go, "oh, Miles!" so, you know, it's not like it bothered me that much.

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Barrayar (Vorkosigan) Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sequel to Shards of Honor. Aral becomes regent, Cordelia becomes pregnant, and a civil war and personal violence threaten both.

Hmm. Yeah, okay, this one stands up much better than the prequel. Which, duh, she wrote it much later. This is one of those books where I think my ambivalence is personal rather than literary. This is a book about the price of parenthood – it's bursting with interlocked parental/child constellations, each revolving to different drums – and while I appreciate it as a narrative, it's not a subject I personally care much about. Right now, possibly ever. And I'm a bit alienated by the way this book – and some of the series later – talks about children. There's a gentle flavor of moral imperative about it, and I'm thinking and thinking and failing to come up with anyone in this entire series who doesn't construct large portions of their psychology or identity around reproduction. Mark, maybe, though I'd actually argue he's still a teenager in the way he's focused on his own, er, genesis. Ivan, I suppose, is the closest you get to an alternative perspective, which . . . huh.

Aaanyway. She writes beautifully about that, but I'm still alienated in flickers here and there. The thing I'm not alienated by is the abbreviated abortion debate we get here, with the conservative Barrayarans calling to abort a child that the liberal Cordelia insists on preserving. It's not actually as nuanced as I'd like, and one of these days I'll articulate some of the slivers of problematic theory that pricked at me this time through from a disability studies perspective, but it's there.

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Shards of Honour (Vorkosigan) Shards of Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
First book in the Vorkosigan series. Cordelia Naismith, high-tech surveyer, meets and becomes romantically and politically entangled with a controversial military officer from the backward planet of Barrayar.

Hmm. First time through I found this book divertingly readable but ultimately clumsy. Second verse, same as the first. The romance interested me more this time, I think because I was in a better frame of mind to accept the way it happens in that sudden, regency romance way. I still winced when the epilogue dropped on my head like an anvil. I mean, it has its politics in the right place, but Bujold could deliver that same sermon later in her career as part of the . . . mechanism of the book, instead of doing a dropkick at the end. And I still think the last quarter of the book doesn't really hold together as a thematic movement.

But, you know, first novel. And it's a good story anyway.

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The second half volume of the Sharing Knife series, following directly on from Beguilement. Dag and Fawn, newly married, travel to Dag’s home with the Lakewalkers. There they meet resistance to their cross-cultural marriage, family drama, a new malice threat, and some strange new developments with Dag’s Ground powers (life force magic, basically).

Since it does not seem possible to review this book without addressing it, I’ll pause here to register my continued bafflement over the splitting of the volumes. It makes perfect sense! I mean, my God, we could never have a 200,000 word fantasy novel! Utterly unheard of! And everyone knows those romance readers all have teeny attention spans, anyway!

I’m annoyed because I think I would have liked the two books as one better than I liked either separately. Also, I gather the impetus to split them was an editorial one, and given I think it was a bad call on literary grounds, that leaves moneymaking motives. And that alienates me. A lot.

Ahem. The book itself is nice enough. I complained about some of the la-di-dah patness of the first volume, and this book turns around and delivers a nasty, prickly mess of people who never did and never will reconcile, let alone accept each other. I appreciated that, as well as the thematic topnote about living forward and prescribed paths and asking questions and how to know when you’re doing right and when you’re just compounding tragedy.

Dag murmured, "It used to happen up in Luthlia sometimes in the winter, someone would fall through rotten ice. And their friends or their kin would try to pull them out, and instead be pulled in after. One after another. Instead of running for help or a rope though the smart patrollers there always wore a length of rope wrapped around their waists in the cold season. Except if someone's slipped under the ice-well, never mind. The hardest thing. . . the hardest thing in such a string of tragedy was to be the one who stopped. But you bet the older folks understood."

The book is about being the one who stops, and in that sense it’s lovely, if unsubtle. I do have to admit to snorting more than once, particularly when the profundities tipped right over into clichés.

Fawn took a long breath, considering this painful thought. "Some_ times," she said distantly, with all the dignity she could gather, "it isn't about having
the right answers. It's about asking the right questions."

My God, if only someone had ever said that to me before! To be fair, these are appropriate things to come out of Fawn’s mouth, considering who she is and where she’s from, but I still rolled my eyes pretty hard.

The bottom line, though, is that this book entertained me, but it never moved me beyond occasional mild indignation on Fawn’s behalf. Dag is interesting (though a bit too close a reiteration of several recent Bujold male leads, if you ask me), and Fawn is all right, but I wasn’t there with them, and I certainly wasn’t feeling the romance the way I wanted to. Shame, really.
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A few hundred years before the events of the Vorkosigan books, a galactic corporation genetically engineered the Quaddies, people perfectly suited to zero gravity engineering and construction work because of their extra pair of arms instead of legs. A human engineer comes aboard the project, and through a series of events which do not need exploring at this juncture he finds himself spearheading nothing less than a revolution in a desperate bid to get the Quaddies safely out of corporate control when they’re slated for termination.

Huh. So about 75 pages into this book I went “um what?” and ran off to check the publication date. Because I knew it was early Bujold, but I didn’t realize how early. I mean, it’s classic Bujold SF – powered by character concerns as much as technology – but it’s, you know . . . early. I was tipped off by the wobbly POV, the slightly hasty character development, the wild coincidences – the entire plot hinges on a typo at one point, for God’s sake! There’s also the slightly troubling shape of the thing, the way the revolution is powered by a human with his big human ideas, and the Quaddies are just a bunch of kids following along.

Still, it is Bujold, and there are flashes of what will later be her more concentrated moments of clarity and brilliance:

“I’m no worse than anyone else.”

“But I’m giving you the chance to be better, don’t you see . . .”

The moral compass of the book points a bit too uncomplicatedly for my taste, but the heart of the thing is true. It’s about choices and self-determination, about how being a bystander makes you complicit in horror because choosing to do nothing is a choice too. The theme and narrative line of direction waver a bit – sometimes blaring in your ear, sometimes too tenuous – but they sound a clear note for all that.

Ah well. Everyone’s a new writer, just learning where all the muscles are, and the stunning difference between this book and, say, Memory is a testament to talent developed.
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This is the first book of a duology, a fantasy/romance with the emphasis on the romance. Our couple consists of Fawn Bluefield – farmer girl, eighteen, pregnant, running away from home – and Dag Redwing – one-handed, widower, fiftyish, from the militaristic Lakewalker culture. Dag and his patrol are tracking a malice, an immortal life-leeching menace which can only be dispatched with a sharing knife (a nice little conceit that is not worth ruining). The malice captures Fawn for nefarious purposes – you see where this is going – and in the course of rescue and saving the world, Dag and Fawn are bound together by a bit of a magical accident.

Huh. That was . . . fine. Kinda weird, though. The summary above sounds like a whole book, but it’s barely the first seventy pages. The rest is unapologetic romance, the sort of stuff that is usually relegated to the last five pages of a fantasy book where the couple mutters to each other about how the folks back home really aren’t going to like this. And I don’t object to the romance. I like Dag and Fawn – though I really hope there’s an actual, you know, reason for such an unnecessarily large age difference, because he’s older than her father and it’s distractingly icky once or twice. Part of the point is, of course, the innocence/experience trope, and the wisdom and revitalization they give to each other, but seriously, he could have lost fifteen years just fine. And while we’re on the subject of things that through me out of the narrative, let’s talk about anachronisms – your barely literate farm girl should not be thinking in percentages. She gets the concept of half and half probability, I’m sure, but she does not know what fifty percent is. I’m just saying.

Anyway. Like I said, it’s really not the romance I object to, because I was the one shaking my head and muttering about how sketchy and unsatisfying the tiny pagespace given over to developing the romances was in her Chalion books. And I’m reserving judgment on the frankly weird shape of this book, considering it is the first volume of a duology.

It’s just that the last two hundred pages of the book felt more than a little candy-coated, and there is nothing more likely to bore me in a book. It’s not the pure domesticity I’m having a problem with, nor the fact that the single dangling magical plot thread is all but ignored for two-thirds of the book, because after they save the world the heroes really do go home to the folks and hang out in the kitchen a lot. We just don’t normally get to see it. And the next volume promises to address the plot. But there was just something sort of pat about the whole thing as they tended to each other’s old, quiet damages (and I genuinely like that sort of thing, too). I like both my romance and my fantasy to have a lot more rough edges to them, and romance/domesticity are not by definition candy-coated. This book had an awful lot of smooth edges, pregnancy out of wedlock and all. This sort of polished smooth structure worked very well in Curse of Chalion because the very ordained, this person fits into this slot in the story quality was part of the plot. But when you’re playing that out back home on the farm, it’s just, well . . . fine.

It’s a good book, certainly, with clever writing and a nice little cultural divide to explore. But I believe the intent was to loft a romance up there, arching over plot, rather than dangling it from underneath as an afterthought. And, well, I just didn’t make it all the way up there – I walked around carrying this book with me all weekend, rather than the other way around. I’m glad I borrowed and not bought, and I hope the second volume accomplishes a lot more for me.
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I was completely incapable of settling on anything to read this week, so I picked this up for a second read. It’s from the middle of her Miles Vorkosigan science fiction series, when said protagonist is in his manic, paranoid, splintered, brilliant mid-twenties. Miles ends up on Earth for complicated reasons, and trouble ensues when the identities of Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan, loyal barrayaran Imperial officer, and Admiral Miles Naismith, free mercenary, begin trying to co-exist in very close quarters, spatially and in Miles’s head. It’s a rollicking but thoughtful adventure in the good old style, though with foresight you can definitely see the stress fractures beginning to show as Bujold prepares to drop the world on Miles’s head in the next few books.

This is an odd book. It’s a story about identity and politics and identity politics, played out like shadow puppets against the backdrop of the Komarr problem (the strategically vital planet socially Medieval Barrayar took over thirty years ago, with attendant atrocities, and with which it is now trying to integrate). The book weaves threads of personal destiny and determinism with the future of the greater social problem, and it comes out rather . . . strangely.

Spoilery elaboration )
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Fiction, fantasy. Third in her Five Gods universe, dealing with the son. I liked this better a year and a reread later. It is very much a Bujold book, by which I mean that the main character, while operating within the inner circles of power, has some affliction (curse and blessing) which makes him an outsider to the society he works to serve. In this case the affliction is the possession of an animal spirit. Which is why, I think, I enjoyed this book but it did not grab me by the heart and gut like Curse of Chalion did – the structure of the magic and Ingrey’s role in the story ensure that he has only a passing contact with the gods of the universe. And that’s the highlight of the series for me, the way damaged people are placed in the path of indescribably vast power, and how the power itself does not so much change them, but the having of it compels them to change themselves. It’s the best of both worlds, really – books that push my destiny button but also insist on absolute personal responsibility. That is not as true in this book, partly because the new magic here is not quite as compelling to me personally. Also, I feel like the canvas is just a bit too crowded – the five people who do have prolonged contact with the gods plus the additional two or three magical practitioners dragged into the final tableau are a bit much for a book with close third narration on a single person. It leaves them all deftly but over quickly sketched, so they are a bit more caricatures of strengths and flaws than I would like.

It is still a very good book, though. Ingrey is a Bujold protagonist, and by that I mean that he is very often unaware of the ways he is extraordinary. The villain is also thoroughly creepifying, and I particularly like the way the book ends, tied up neatly but with threads of uncertainty and loss and future trial woven in, much like life.


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