Penric & Desdemona, Part 1
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Penric's Demon / Penric and the Shaman / Penric's Fox
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted February 25, 2023
Edits and Addenda on March 4 & April 16
PLEASE NOTE: some of the purchase links have been edited since this review was first posted, but that is not a guarantee the ones I link to will be available for any length of time, at least from Amazon or Bookshop.
The Penric and Desdemona stories are a subset, or spin-off, of Bujold's World of the Five Gods series, the third book of which was a prequel to the first two. Penric's tale is set approximately 150 years after The Hallowed Hunt, and about 100 years before The Curse of Chalion. All but one of the stories (so far) are novellas, the first couple of which were independently published by Bujold as e-books. All have later received special editions in hardcover from Subterranean Press, but those were limited print runs, and even if you can find a copy they might be more expensive than when they were first published. Baen Books have released three omnibus volumes that collect three novellas each, but the first of those, the one pictured to the right, is out of print in mass market paperback, with Amazon listing it from just one of their third-party sellers. The hardcover may technically be out of print too, although it seems both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have some new copies warehoused,
but neither edition is available through Bookshop [EDIT: Bookshop now has a listing for the hardcover, but not the paperback]. I guess I was lucky to get the paperback at my local Barnes & Noble shortly before it went out of print.
A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
The hardcover came out just three years ago, the paperback a year later, yet Baen doesn't care to keep them in print? It is frustrating for a reader, and I'm sure even more so for an author of Bujold's stature, that all the books of a series can't be kept in print in uniform editions. All of Penric's stories are available in the various e-book formats, but not everyone has an e-reader, or a desire to purchase one. I plan to read and review one of the stories each month throughout the year, and unless she publishes another before then it will work out perfectly, since there are currently eleven in the sequence. I'll create at least four different pages for them, covering nine of them as they were collected in the omnibus volumes. The next to last is novel length, so might not be collected with another, and the last one is again a novella, so the fourth page will cover both of them. The first two novellas are the only ones to receive any award recognition, and while neither won, both were Hugo finalists, and Penric's Demon was also finalist for a Locus. I nominated and voted for Hugos both of those years, and received e-books in PDF format in the Reader's Packet, but I didn't read too far into Demon, and the following year I didn't even start Shaman. At that time I had not yet read the Five Gods novels, but have since. I am committed to reviewing all of Penric, and I hope they hold my interest.
When I began this review the artwork featured below were the minimalistic e-book covers, but I decided to change to the Subterranean editions, which I think are better. It doesn't matter that some of those editions are no longer available.
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As I mentioned above, Amazon has all the individual stories as ebooks, so if you have a Kindle (or the Kindle app on another device) and wish to buy them that way, click here for Penric's Demon, or if you want the hardcover omnibus click here for Amazon, or here for Bookshop. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission. Bookshop is not selling e-books, and their only listing for the first novella is for audio CDs, which are on backorder, likely meaning out of production. If you want to search for the Subterranean print copies, on Ebay, or through bookfinder.com, or however else you find out of print books, the ISBN number for "Demon" is 9781596067691.
I usually try my best to remain spoiler free on books, just as I do for films and TV. I'd rather experience the story fresh, without preconceptions. Until recently all I knew was these stories were set in the same milieu as the Five Gods novels, although in a different time period. Since I read very little of Demon the year it was a Hugo finalist, it wasn't until last month I stumbled upon information about Desdemona. At the beginning of his story, Lord Penric kin Jurald is nineteen, and on his way to his betrothal, which had been arranged by the two families. He had met with the woman only three times before in chaperoned situations. He is running late, his mother and older brother having gone on to the town of Greenwell ahead of him. He is a lord since his family are land-owners, but their estate is small, and they do not have much financial or political power. I'm not sure about the family he was going to marry into, but that never happens. Instead, he and his groom encounter another party, with several people gathered around an elderly woman, who is clearly in distress. Penric dismounts and offers his help, while a guard from the other group rides to Greenwell to seek a physician. The woman is the Learned Ruchia, a divine of the Bastard's Order. She seems to be babbling incoherently, then as she dies Penric collapses. When he comes back to consciousness he is in a bed in a small room, which he quickly guesses is in the hospice of the Mother's Order at Greenwell. He discovers he has slept through an entire day, missing the betrothal ceremony, which angered his mother and brother, and vexed his bride-to-be. That upset is nothing compared to how they feel when they learn what has happened to Penric.
That night, or maybe early the next morning, he discovers something very unsettling. Something, someone, begins talking to him, but through his own mouth. The Learned Ruchia seems to have bequeathed him her demon. In the previous Five Gods novels we learned it was common, even though later prohibited, that people took upon themselves the spirits of animals. But demons on the other hand, were said to be escapees from the Bastard's Hell. When they inhabited a human the options were either an exorcism performed by divines, the result of which might be the divine taking the demon into themselves, or else instructing the person how to control the demon. If they were able to control it they would become a sorcerer. There was a risk the demon would become ascendant, controlling the person rather than the other way around. It becomes clear that demons are not necessarily evil, in fact can be beneficial to the person riding them. As to the last point, that is the way it is described; the person riding the demon, as opposed to certain other real world beliefs, such as Papa Legba, a spirit that would ride the person he inhabits. Another thing that becomes clear is that Penric's demon has been in many people before him, not just the Learned Ruchia, and apparently had been in an animal before their first human. At least ten, maybe more, individual voices speak through the demon, some in languages Penric does not recognize. Those are either the spirits of the previous people the demon has inhabited, or maybe just the demon utilizing their memories. The demon and Penric are later able to communicate silently, but initially it is the demon speaking with his voice, which leads to some awkward moments. I don't think the demon ever identified themselves by name, but Penric gave them a name; Desdemona, a character from a story book he read many times when he was younger.
Ruchia's guards escort Penric to what was to have been her eventual destination, the Bastard's temple in Martensbridge. He is not a prisoner, he is free to move about the building, even to the library where he realizes, with Desdemona's aid, he can read a book in a language he previously did not know. There is a cabinet of books kept locked, specifically about demons, that he wants to read, but is denied access. Desdemona, however, is able to tell him how to unlock the cabinet, and directs him to a specific book, one that had been written by the Learned Ruchia. Penric doesn't know who to trust, especially amongst the Bastard's Order, his family having always worshipped the Mother, although he was more inclined to think of the Son as his guiding God. He was right to be skeptical, since an acolyte and his brother scheme to extract the demon for their own purposes, and Penric even suspects the temple's divine was part of that plot. He escapes, returns to the temple, where he undergoes an inquest, eventually even an audience with the Princess-Archdivine. A theory is proposed, which may or may not later be confirmed, that Penric was chosen by the demon, rather than it being happenstance. One clue about that is Learned Ruchia was traveling between two cities, which she had done many times before, but by an alternate route for the first time. Why did she insist on that change, and did she have some foreknowledge of Penric, a premonition that told her he would be the best next host for her demon? That remains to be seen. All I know now is I enjoyed this novella, was impressed with Bujold's masterful touch with descriptive exposition, and the character of Penric, although it is too soon to know what my eventual opinion of Desdemona will be. But I'm anxious to find out. I'll be reading Penric and the Shaman next month, which I guess will be about Penric training to be a sorcerer (and maybe a spy, as it seems Learned Ruchia had been).
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Penric and the Shaman is available for Kindle from Amazon, as well as being in the hardcover omnibus mentioned above. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission. If you want to search for the Subterranean hardcover, its ISBN is 9781596068155.
Posted March 4, 2023:
I was surprised we didn't get a novella covering Penric's seminary training. Instead, the second story begins about four years after the end of Demon, and he has been back at the Bastard's temple in Martensbridge for a year. It normally took at least four years, and sometimes six, for that level of training, but Penric was aided by the knowledge Desdemona had received from others she had inhabited, including the Learned Ruchia. Penric is now a Learned himself, a temple divine, and the official court sorcerer for the Princess-Archdivine. He is allowed to wear the appropriate braids as badges of office, and the typical white garments of the Bastard's order, although he doesn't always wear them. It's not clear whether he had been involved in significant cases in need of a sorcerer during that year, but an assignment is eventually issued by the Princess-Archdivine herself. Penric's story (at least the first two) takes place in the Cantons, north of the Weald, northwest of Darthaca, southwest of Chalion. In The Hallowed Hunt we learned the capital of the Weald was in Easthome, and toward the end of that book the main character, Ingrey kin Wolfcliff, consulted another of his kin about ghosts in their castle. That person's name was Islin, so it seems male members of a family were given similar names. The one who brings his petition to Martensbridge is Oswyl, who is a Locater. He had been on the trail of a murder suspect, who is also possibly one who possesses an animal spirit. His quarry is Ingris kin Wolfcliff. Oswyl had left Easthome with guards and another sorcerer, but he did not agree with that sorcerer about where the trail should lead, so he allowed the others to go east toward Darthaca, while he followed his instincts to the north into the Cantons.
The Princess brings Penric to her offices to hear Oswyl's story, which confuses Oswyl since Penric is commonly dressed, without even his braids of office. Being unaware that Penric is a sorcerer with a demon, Oswyl is skeptical of him due to his young age, and it takes most of the story before he is able to appreciate Penric's talents and logical insights. The trail continues north, with stops at all towns and villages, where Oswyl questions inn and tavern owners and workers about the man he seeks. Interspersed between those sequences, we also see what Ingris has been up to, most of which is puzzling. Supposedly a shaman himself, he is in search of another shaman to help with a ritual. Until he is successful in that search, he apparently has been attempting a type of spell which impels him to draw his own blood, with cuts on his arms and legs, then wiping that blood off with the knife blade. When the blood completely dries and can be easily wiped off the blade, he resheaths it, ready for the next cut. Something else I didn't mention in the above review, or for the Five Gods novels, is that in addition to some taking upon animal spirits, animals were also bred in order for their spirits to be transferred to one of their offspring, which would continue through multiple generations, thus creating a super-spirit of sorts, eventually destined to be taken in by a human. Ingris is in search of one such breeder, but his reasons are vague and confusing. It takes Penric to unravel all the clues, and it doesn't help that Oswyl continues to underestimate him and disregard his suggestions. One thing that disappointed me was Desdemona was not as prominent, and most of what she interjected were jokes of one sort or another. Then again, it did highlight how much native intelligence Penric has, which includes deductive reasoning, and reading people's emotions. He is a divine after all.
Throughout all the Vorkosigan books, and the Five Gods, and now Penric, Bujold writes in third-person. Some writers don't care for first-person, but Penric telling his own story would be very interesting. Then again, he wouldn't know what Ingris was doing until later being told about it, so that narration would have to be after the fact. A problem I had in several scenes was not knowing which character was speaking, since there were several lines of dialogue back and forth without identifiers, even though tracking back to when a speaker was last mentioned I could figure it out. There were also scenes of exposition, where it took me a while to figure out which character was doing what. The climactic scene between Penric and Ingris deals with the spirit world, and that of the Gods. Even though Penric works out of the Bastard's temple, his seminary training encompassed all five Gods. If we can trust the third-person narration, Penric saw one of the Gods in the first story, and here he tells Ingris he would rather that not happen again. When he is helping Ingris, it is implied Ingris sees the Son, who helps withdraw the spirits from within him, but Penric doesn't see the God, even though he could sense some of what Ingris was experiencing. Even if this was in first-person, we would have no way of knowing if the Gods are real, or just visions of what people expect to see. Penric is successful in helping Ingris through his ordeal, even being able to explain the situation enough to get the charges against him dropped. He also gains the respect of Oswyl. I happened upon a comment somewhere that said Penric becomes as much an investigator as a sorcerer. Perhaps he will follow other Locaters on other cases, but that remains to be seen. We'll see what happens when I get to the third story next month.
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Penric's Fox is available for Kindle, and at this time at least new and/or used copies of the Subterranean hardcover are listed at both Amazon and Bookshop, as well as being in the hardcover omnibus mentioned above. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Posted April 16, 2023:
I ended the previous section by saying Penric might become as much an investigator as a sorcerer, and this third entry bears that out. While still headquartered out of Martensbridge with the Princess-Archdivine, they are both in Easthome on business matters. Penric has a day off, and he is spending it fishing with Ingris kin Wolfcliff, who now works at the shaman's menagerie in Easthome. The fish aren't biting, but they are content to be lazy until their wine casks cool in the water. Unfortunately, their idyll is interrupted by the Locator Oswyl, who seeks Penric's help in an investigation. A temple divine from the village of Weir has been found dead in the woods, two arrows in her back. One of the things Desdemona offers Penric is a special Sight, which enables him to see ghosts or demons. He cannot see or sense either around the body. Her demon could have leapt into the body of her murderer, or perhaps into an animal nearby, or else could be lost, ascended back in the Bastard's realm. A third arrow is found nearby with a tuft of fox fur, so the supposition is the demon could have jumped to the fox. It is possible for a demon to become ascendant when inhabiting a human (we saw that in The Hallowed Hunt), which usually resulted in the demon compelling the human to go rogue. Even if a demon, used to being inside a human, could survive inside a small fox, they might ascend and the fox would become feral, or else the demon would go mad from the restrictions of such a small body and mind.
This story is another good indication that Penric is well suited to be a sorcerer, even if Ruschia or Desdemona had not sought him out as the next host. His instincts are almost inherently correct, but he still has the problem of others underestimating him due to his young age. That does not apply to either Oswyl or Ingris anymore, but he does have to prove himself to others frequently. He is not always a physical match for his quarry though, but has Desdemona's help in subduing them through sorcery. This particular mystery dates back several years, to someone who had escaped a previous conviction, hiding out in another country while most thought him dead. But he had not given up on his revenge. He sought not to kill the divine sorcerer, but her demon instead. Several new characters are introduced, who may or may not be featured in later stories, but I hope they are. Both are women, one an assistant to Oswyl, the other a colleague of Ingris and other shamans, who had been very helpful in handling the fox. Penric impresses all of them, and he is impressed with their skills as well, and their dedication to their tasks. It is also obvious Penric has become a cherished and respected part of the Princess-Archdivine's duties. She is ready to go back to Martensbridge, but Penric asks leave to stay in order to train and learn from the shamans, pointing out that anything he learns will benefit his sorcerer's duties later. The Princess says she intended for him to intern with one of her physicians, but he counters with the fact that several of those Desdemona had previously inhabited had been physicians, so he is well versed in those practices, not that he couldn't learn more though.
As we saw with the Vorkosigan series, Bujold often writes out of the chronological order of her character's experiences. This is considered the third, even though the next two stories were written, or at least published, before Penric's Fox. The next omnibus is titled Penric's Travels, which may indicate he journeys multiple locations in search of more knowledge, or maybe just for other investigations. Again, I haven't sought out any more information ahead of time, but I'll find out soon. One thing I haven't seen anywhere, since I haven't read interviews with Bujold, or read other reviews, is whether or not the title of this first omnibus, Penric's Progress, was influenced in any way by John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress." Even if not, it seems logical to assume Penric will continue to accrue knowledge of sorcery, as well as insights into human behavior, as he travels around The Weald, or wherever his destiny takes him. I'm anxious to follow him on those journeys.
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