A Tunnel in the Sky

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Penric & Desdemona, Part 2
by Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric's Mission / Mira's Last Dance / The Prisoner of Limnos

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 17, 2023

The image to the right is the second omnibus, Penric's Travels. It is apparent there was a higher print run for its hardcover release, since both Amazon and Bookshop list them as new. Amazon does have a listing for the mass market paperback, but only as used through various third-party sellers. The individual stories are all available as ebooks for all devices, and all for the same price. I'll link to the Kindle versions separately below, but Bookshop does not deal with ebooks, their goal being to support independent bookstores. As with all our links, a purchase through them may earn us a commission.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of my exploration of Penric's story, Bujold occasionally wrote outside the continuity of the character's journey, which she also did with the Vorkosigan Saga. If the omnibuses had the same order as the original publication dates, Penric's Mission would have been the last in the first volume, with Penric's Fox the second in this one. I have to assume she was the one who picked the order for the collections. Penric talks about some of his previous experiences here, some of which had not yet been written, so she went back to fill in a few gaps. There is also a character mentioned here who I am sure was not in the earlier stories, but they will be featured in the second one in this volume.


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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 Mission, but it is also available in the hardcover omnibus mentioned above, which is the only option at this time for Bookshop. Amazon also has listings for both new and used copies of the original Subterranean hardcover, but there is no guarantee those will be available for long. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

At the beginning of this story Penric is disembarking from an Adriac cargo ship at the port city of Patos in Cedonia. Quite a bit has happened since the last story, with some events possibly detailed in later ones, but there are a few brief hints. It has been eleven years since the demon Desdemona inhabited Penric's body, and mind. It is not as clear how long it had been since he left Martensbridge, although we learn the reasons why he petitioned to be accepted at the Bastard's Temple in Adria, where later he was brought to the attention of a duke who wanted him for a special mission. Penric is traveling incognito, not in the white robes of a divine of the Bastard's order, not with his silver braids indicating he is a sorcerer. Instead, he is posing as a lawyer's clerk, with false documents, but also papers from the duke sewn into the lining of his coat. He had struck up an acquaintance with a man named Velka on the boat, whom he leaves talking to a soldier on the dock, goes through customs, then while strolling in a market Velka arrives with more guards, points to Penric and shouts, "That's the spy! Arrest him!"

Penric was supposed to meet with a Cedonian general, Adelis Arisaydia, who had sent a letter to the duke, seeking a post in Adria. Why he wanted to leave Cedonia, and what he intended to do in Adria, is the major mystery. Except that's not really the mystery, since Arisaydia had not sent the letter, it had been forged. Who set up the general, and why? Penric spends a few days in a dungeon, but is able to escape thanks to a bit of magic, his captors thinking he had drowned when his cell was flooded, his body washed out to sea. Since this is written in third-person, while Penric is in the dungeon, we also learn what has happened to the general, also arrested, but in a nicer, above-ground cell. We also meet his sister, who is the widow of another Cedonian officer. I'm not going to detail all the events that lead to Penric coming into contact with Arisaydia and Nikys, nor how they make their escape from Patos. Up to a point later in the story, Penric kept the secret of why he came to Cedonia, but by then he had already figured out the general was innocent of anything Cedonia officials accused him of, that he was not the traitor they claimed.

A lot of that is left up in the air at the end, including the fate of Arisaydia and Nikys. I've no idea if we'll see them again, but Penric is still with them as they leave Cedonia heading toward Orbas. Penric was unable to convince the general to return to Adria with him. I haven't been able to find a map of this area, but it seems clear it is to the south of Darthaca and The Weald, but since Penric had intended to return to Adria by boat, it may be an island nation. We did learn why the general had been set up, what Cedonia officials feared, but I won't talk about that either. What is good about this novella is how Penric handles his tasks, with diligence and talent, in spite of continual pushback from Arisaydia, and almost complete puzzlement from Nikys. Penric wanted to be a scholar, to read books, to translate from foreign texts, to learn as many other languages as possible. His superiors always had other goals, other ways to use his talents, without regard for his well-being. But he has his scruples, his own honor, morality, and nobility, which would have been evident even if he had never encountered Desdemona. He is the first man the demon has inhabited, ten women before him, so he learns a lot about the feminine persepctive as well as the demonic, and Des learns a lot from him, and has grown very fond of him. This is the longest of all the novellas, probably very close to being novel length. It is also my favorite so far, highly recommended. But don't start here; go back to Penric's Demon to learn how he "met" Desdemona. Since this second omnibus is about his travels, he is sure to be in a different place in the next story. Will it be Orbas, or back in Adria? How much time will have passed? I'll find out next month when I read Mira's Last Dance.


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Lois McMaster Bujold

Omnibus: 2020

See review for links to buy various editions. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.