Reading as a Hugo voter is a funny thing. I’ve been aware of the Hugo awards for more than 30 years now, some of the winners have been among the best things that I’ve read, and I’m thrilled to be a part of the process for the first time this year. I’m getting to play a small part in giving this award that has meant a lot to me, isn’t that neat? I’m full of squee, as the saying goes.
Still, reading for the award changes my reading process. (Writing about books so regularly here has also changed how I read, somewhat, but that’s another story.) No matter how deeply I have sunk into the reading experience, evaluation is lurking somewhere in the background of my mind. How does this work stack up against the other five finalists? Above or below the baseline established by the first finalist I read in this particular category? Is it doing something that’s been done many times before? Is it trying something new, or at least something that appears new to me? How does it stack up?
Penric and the Shaman is the second story of Penric, a young scholar and divine, and his much older demon, and I would not have read it just now if it had not been nominated for a Hugo in the category of Best Novella. I would definitely have started with the first story in the series, because I am like that, although Bujold provides enough background that the story is perfectly understandable without having read the other one first.
Penric’s world is a fairly standard fantasy setting: vaguely medieval technology, a feudal system of government not terribly unlike England’s, a European geography of temperate climes and numerous small polities. The dominant religion centers on five deities, who are demonstrably real and accessible to people in this world, including Penric himself on at least one occasion that he recalls. Spirits and demons are also present, if not necessarily in abundance. Penric’s demon, Desdemona, is a presence inside of him, separate, given to promoting chaos, and possessing certain magical abilities. Penric himself is in his early 20s, but has advanced quickly in training as both a sorcerer and a divine thanks to Desdemona’s presence.
Bujold tells the stories of Penric and the Shaman from three different points of view. The novella opens with Inglis wondering whether the nearby vultures will feast on him. He is stuck on an icy slope, pinned by rocks after a fall. A dog seems to appear, Inglis hears voices, and he cannot tell whether this is real or vision by the time consciousness slips away. In the next section, Penric is immersed in a translation, which Desdemona finds frightfully dull, when his patron and liege lady calls him in for consultations. A Senior Locator from the capital has come to their remote home in search of a young nobleman who has fled before an accusation of murder, an accusation, in this instance, with occult overtones. Oswyl, the Locator, provides the third point of view in subsequent chapters.
Penric provides a primer on the differences between his situation and a shaman’s:
“The shamans’ magic is a human creation, or at least, rising from the world instead of descending, or escaping, from a god as demons do,” Penric went on. “In the old forests, tribal shamans were said to invest their warriors with the spirits of fierce animals, to endow them with that strength and ferocity in battle. The making of a shaman partook of this, only more so. The spirits of animals were sacrificed into others of the same kind, generation after generation, piled up until they became something more, Great Beasts. Invested at last into a person, the spirit of such a creature brought its powers to him not”—he cleared his throat—“not unlike the way a demon of the white god does for a sorcerer. Despite the very different origins of the gifts.” (p. 14)
The narrative as a whole thus tells of several hunts and unraveling a number of mysteries. Oswyl and Penric are hunting the escaped shaman. Inglis is hunting a powerful shaman. Other characters hunt their own answers. Mysteries include what precisely happened to the victim whose death sent Oswyl into the north, what will become of Inglis, and what kinds of sorcery are flourishing outside the view of orthodox authority.
There is also, within the context of this world, the question of whether some souls will be put to rest. This happens literally in the world of the five gods, with a manifestation at nearly every funeral showing which god the soul has gone to join; when that is prevented from happening it is a source of great distress to the survivors and, presumably, to the deceased themselves. Ghosts are spirits that have been sundered from their bodies but denied the opportunity to go to the gods. Desdemona can help Penric to see them, and other sorcerers can see into this realm too.
The hunts are interesting, but not tense; this is not a narrative that was going finish at loose ends. Nor does the main mystery remain all that mysterious. The main pleasure is in seeing how the characters interact, how each pursues their goals and comes to a new and different understanding. And of course learning more about the intriguing world that Bujold has set up.
Bujold tells her tales deftly, and economically. Penric and the Shaman is a story of saving a life, and perhaps an afterlife, not of saving the world. Though of course every life saved is a world saved. Penric himself is unusual, but not crucial to the functioning of the world; likewise, the areas where he lives and works are backwaters, but for all that no less important to the people who live there. I like seeing a story that is a part of the world, not the shape of the world, and Bujold tells this one very well.
Penric and the Shaman was the tenth piece of Hugo reading I have done this year, and the eighth one I have written about.