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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
Edits & Addenda on June 24 and July 9

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 arrived by boat and planned to return to Adria the same way, Cedonia may be an island nation. [EDIT: It's not] 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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Not listed individually at Bookshop, only in the hardcover omnibus mentioned above. That hardcover is also available from Amazon, and they have this story on Kindle. Amazon also has listings of new or used copies of the Subterranean hardcover, the one pictured here, but since those had limited print runs there is no guarantee they will have them for long. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Posted June 24, 2023
I don't know if this will happen again, but Mira's Last Dance is a direct sequel, picking up shortly after the end of the previous novella. Penric, Adelis Arisaydia, and Nikys are still running from Cedonian military and government officials. Adelis wants to get to Orbas, where he hopes to be welcomed into their duke's service. Penric still wants to take him to Adria, but is quickly finding out Adelis opposes that, although it's not clear why. Nikys has no other option than to follow along. I said above that Penric had mentioned Mira in passing, and since I've tried to stay spoiler free I didn't realize she is one of the women that Desdemona previsouly inhabited. Also, I should make it clear that demons might not have names for themselves, Desdemona is just a name Penric gave the demon. I'm also not sure if demons have gender identities, but in this case, every other body the demon had inhabited, before Penric, was female, including their first two incarnations, a lioness and a mare. Since then they have inhabited ten women, from different countries, and over a span of at least two hundred years. Mira had died about a hundred years previously, from cervical cancer. Before that she was a courtesan in the city of Lodi. Through the other stories I've imagined Desdemona speaking in Learned Ruchia's voice, since she was the prior host before Penric, but there were occasional interjections from some of the others. I may be mistaken, but I think this is the first time all of the other women were mentioned by name, at least all on the same page, and perhaps they will figure into future stories.

They make it to the small town of Sosie, but Penric's plan of seeking accommodations at the local temple is thwarted by a dual funeral there. The two dead are a young man and girl from rival families who had killed themselves, in a scenario that is very similar to Romeo and Juliet. The only place they can find lodgings is a bordello. Adelis is supposed to remain in their room as much as possible since he may be recognized, and Penric, with Mira's guidance, devises another means of deception. Penric and Nikys, with help from the bordello owner, dye his hair and dress him in women's clothing, Mira taking over from there to act as a former courtesan journeying to Orbas to join a duke's household. Penric was a handsome man, who now proves to be an attractive woman. That is Penric in the cover image of the Subterranean edition, not Nikys, not Mira, except for the feminine wiles Mira is able to impart to his demeanor. A local general is smitten by Penric/Mira, which throws a wrench in the works. Adelis knows that general, and is sure he would be recognized, so they make their escape. They eventually make it to Orbas, where Adelis is recruited, and Nikys is offered a position of lady-in-waiting to the duke's young daughter, or rather, more like a governess. She has fought her attraction to Penric throughout, fearful of all the other spirits inside him, so she declines his proposal of marriage. The story ends at that point, with Penric starting to write a letter to his Adrian duke, who may think him dead if the news from Cedonia had reached him. Where will Penric end up next, what predicament will he face? Will he be The Prisoner of Limnos?

About the title, Mira doesn't exactly dance, unless the normal actions of a courtesan could be considered a form of dance. Even though Bujold doesn't shy away from some sexual references, they are never graphic or salacious. Penric has been with several women, but we only get brief hints about that. It can be assumed he has a healthy libido, but hasn't always had the opportunity to act the way he would if he had not become a sorcerer. The first time Desdemona came to his attention was shortly after she inhabited him, while he was lying in bed, starting to masturbate. Some of the women who make up his demon's overall personality were sexually active, with either men or women or both, others were more reserved, perhaps celibate. Now in Penric's life, many women find him attractive, some intrigued by the other personalities within him, others repelled. It is possible Penric also had intimate relations with other men. As a physician during previous assignments, he had to become comfortable touching bodies, including men. No details are given here, but "Mira" spends several hours alone with the general, and while he says he never took off his clothes, he doesn't say what he did that so impressed the general to warrant a bag full of gold, which gets them a nice coach and team of horses to get them to Orbas, and the general even escorts them to the border.

One other thing. As mentioned before, Bujold often wrote out of sequence. Depending on how you look at it, Mira's Last Dance is either the fifth story, since it is the middle one in the second omnibus, following the three in the first collection. But it was the fourth to be published, the sixth in chronological sequence. I chose to review in the order of the omnibus volumes, which is as good an order to read them as any other, since you can consider some later ones to be prequels..

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Not listed individually at Bookshop, only in the hardcover omnibus mentioned above. That collection is also available from Amazon, and they have this story on Kindle. There are also listings of new or used copies of the Subterranean Press edition at Amazon, but there is no guarantee they will have them for long since those had limited print runs. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Posted July 9, 2023
Another direct sequel, and another indication that I don't seek out information about the stories ahead of time. My question above was incorrect; Penric is not the prisoner of the title. He is still in Orbas, since he has not decided whether he should return to Adria, or stay to woo Nikys. He knows she respects him, perhaps likes him, but maybe not as much as he likes her. He is the first she tells about a letter she has received, and asks for his help. Something I didn't mention above is that Nikys and Adelis consider themselves to be twins, since they were born on the same day. They share a father, but were born to two different mothers. Nikys' mother was her father's concubine, brought into the household since his first wife, Florina, was barren; that is, until Idrene, then Florina becomes pregnant too, and the two women had become fast friends. Their father is dead, Florina is dead, and Nikys had not seen her mother for several years. She had devoted herself to maintaining her brother's household while he was away on military campaigns, then his superiors conspired against him, and they were forced to flee Cedonia. Now Nikys needs to go back. The letter she received is short and cryptic, and even though there is no signature or salutation, she recognizes the handwriting. The letter is from Tanar, a woman Adelis had courted some two years before, and it is apparent she has been willing to wait for him in spite of what Cedonia is saying about him. When they arrive at Tanar's home they find out Idrene has been imprisoned at the Daughter's convent on the island of Limnos. All are puzzled why there, and why Idrene would be targeted, since she was not Adelis's mother, but those after him must have decided she was the closest person in his life, other than Nikys, whose plight could draw him out.

Penric and Nikys, along with Bosha, Tanar's confidential secretary/bodyguard, hatch a rescue plan. This is another novella, but still packed with a lot of action and intrigue, but I won't dwell too much on the particulars. Part of the plan involves Penric donning womens clothing again, since no man is allowed past the drawbridge into the convent. Bosha's sister is an acolyte there, and he usually visited her on her birthday each year, but their meetings had to be outside the convent walls. He knows that part of the island well enough to get Pen and Nikys there, but once they cross the drawbridge they will play the part of pilgrims to the sanctuary, hoping to get lost among the crowds of other pilgrims. The intent is to find where Idrene is being held, Pen using his conjuring skills to get into her cell, switch clothing with Idrene, she and Nikys leaving, pretending to be the same two women who went in. Suffice it to say, that plan worked, Bothas getting Nikys and Idrene off the island, and Pen does escape too, just in a completely different way than he had anticipated. They meet up again in a town to the north, and plan their next step. Part of that next step is Nikys interviewing Desdemona as to what she could expect if she accepted Pen's proposal. She does accept, although it seems it may be a while before I read the continuation of that story line, since the first novella in the next omnibus is another prequel, apparently the fourth in the chronological sequence of Penric's adventures. Next month, we go to a Masquerade in Lodi.

I continue to be impressed with Bujold's crafting of this story, even if a little disjointed at times. I am most impressed with Penric as a person, over and above his talents as a temple divine and sorcerer. He is completely different physically from Miles Vorkosigan, but as with Miles, Penric impresses almost everyone he comes into contact with, in spite of their initial reservations. Those reservations in Miles' case were due to his physical deformities, but his intellect and passion for justice was quickly evident. For Penric, many misjudge him at first since he appears much younger than he is, and because of the needed secrecy concerning his being a sorcerer many may think he is shy, reserved, and incapable of handling the tasks he sets for himself. Many fear sorcerers, and past events may have shown that fear to be warranted, but Penric is obviously unique among sorcerers. Eventually others see his true talents, and foremost among them is loyalty and trust, and the knowledge he only uses sorcery as a last resort. At the end of this story he seems to have acquired more allies, but we'll have to wait and see if they reappear.

Related Links:
Go back to Penric & Desdemona, Part 1
Or continue with Part 3
And now Part 4
A list of all my Bujold reviews


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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.