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Penric & Desdemona, Part 3
by Lois McMaster Bujold

Masquerade in Lodi / The Orphans of Raspay / The Physicians of Vilnoc

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 24, 2023
Edits and Addenda on September 10 and October 6

The third omnibus volume is titled Penric's Labors. It was published in hardcover [Bookshop / Amazon] in November last year, and will come out in mass market paperback [Bookshop / Amazon] on October 31 this year. I will link to the individual Kindle titles below, as well as if either of the Subterranean editions are available. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

The previous two pages covered three novellas each, but the first story in this collection is supposedly the fourth in the chronological sequence of Penric's life. It wasn't included in either of the previous two collections since it wasn't published individually until after the second omnibus was printed. In fact, it was the last of these three stories to be released. The specific incidents depicted could have come at a later time, other than the fact they occur before Pen met Nikys. We get more insights into the workings of the various temples of the Five Gods, and the wide range of endeavors by Learneds of each house. It seems they act as much like government or civil servants as they do religious representatives. As far as I can recall, there has been only one other appearance of a "saint," those who have direct contact with their God, that being in the first story..

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If you have a Kindle (or the Kindle app on another device) and wish to buy them that way, click here for Masquerade in Lodi. If you want the omnibus in print click the links above for either Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission. Bookshop is not selling e-books, and their only individual listing for this novella is for audio CDs, which are on backorder, perhaps out of production. If you want to search for a copy of the Subterranean hardcover, the ISBN number is 9781645240471.

Lodi is a port city in Adria, described in such a way as to evoke visions of Venice. Lots of canals and bridges connecting various sections of the city, as well as some off-shore islands accessible by boat. We already knew Penric had left the Bastard's Temple in Martensbridge, and the reasons for his desire to leave. He is attached to the temple in Lodi now, later to be drafted into the service of an Adrian duke, which resulted in him meeting Adelis Arisaydia and his sister Nikys, which I covered in Part 2 of his adventures. Here he is pulled into the investigation of a young man rescued from the sea, having apparently fallen overboard from a passenger or shipping vessel. He is acting strangely, and speaking incoherently. The suspicion is he may be possessed, which Pen confirms almost immediately. Using his special Sight through Desdemona, he sees the chaotic demon inside the man, and that demon senses Desdemona. Even before Pen leaves that building, word comes that the man has escaped his cell. It is the Bastard's Eve, with masked crowds celebrating with parties and parades, and a demon-possessed man trying to avoid detection.

Pen enlists the aid of a saint from the Bastard's Temple, who will try to extract the demon if they are lucky enough to find the man. The saint turns out to be a young and very pretty orphan girl, Chio, who says her average of demon extractions had been five or six per year since her calling. Desdemona is fearful of saints, not wanting to be drawn back to the Bastard's Hell. She has enjoyed her life within the bodies of ten women, and now Penric, of whom she is very fond. Pen isn't fearful of the Gods, but the one time he did see one of them was one time too many. He is not anxious to experience that again. Desdemona's powers help Pen several times during the search, including the Sight, and various other forms of sorcery. Another Learned he meets is from the Mother's Temple. She is a contract lawyer whose husband owns a shipping fleet, and it just so happens she is Ree's (the possessed man's) mother.

I liked this story, other than the fact it was too easy to guess the how and why Ree had nearly drowned, but I won't spoil that. I will say I was surprised Pen didn't realize the truth sooner. It is another examination of the multiple talents of Penric, over and above the sorcery Desdemona enables. Deductive reasoning is one, but even more valuable is his empathy and desire to help others. Within each story he has impressed others, and gathered many allies, even if some of them have yet to reappear in a later story. I don't know how long this series will last, how many more tales Bujold will weave, but I sense even greater things in Penric's future. I'll repeat that I've stayed spoiler-free of the coming stories as much as possible, but I most want to see the development of his relationship with Nikys. I won't know about that until at least next month, when I read about The Orphans of Raspay..

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Buy for Kindle from Amazon, or use the links above if you want the omnibus in print. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission. Bookshop's only listing for this single story is back-ordered audio CDs. You may be able to find used copies of the Subterranean hardcover, the ISBN for which is 9781596069725.

Posted September 10, 2023
Set a few months, maybe as much as a year, after the end of The Prisoner of Limnos. Penric and Nikys are married, and while he mentions her several times, he is away on an assignment and she is back in Vilnoc, and doesn't appear until the epilogue. The ship Penric is on is waylaid by pirates and he is taken prisoner. They transfer him to another ship they had recently seized, dropping him into the hold where he first meets the orphans, Lencia and Seuka Corva. Their mother, a prostitute, had recently died, their maid-servant had abandoned them, putting them on a ship that was supposed to take them to their father, who at that point was not aware of their mother's death. Besides, he is a busy trader with a wife and children in Ibra. The girls journey began in Raspay, Jokona, which is north of Ibra, at the northwestern edge of the Ibran peninsula. That peninsula also contains Chalion, where the first two Five Gods novels were set. They end up in Lantihera, the pirate stronghold on an island in the middle of an archipelago.

One of the benefits of hosting the demon Desdemona is sharing the memories of the ten women who had been hosts before him. Thus he knows of places he has yet to experience himself. He realizes that if they can somehow escape the pirates and steal or charter a boat, it would be a quick trip due west to the shores of Cedonia, and not much farther if they headed southwest to Vilnoc. Several of Pen's plans fall short of the mark, although he is able to use sorcery to get out of tight spots. He and the girls steal a rowboat, heading for a slave trader's ship, which he had previously spared from sinking since he thought slaves might still be in the hold. He had already started a fire in a warehouse on shore, and sabotaged a couple of other ships. At that point, his brother-in-law Adelis sails into the harbor with several other ships from Duke Jurgo's fleet. Adelis's negotiations with the pirates are successful, including them offering money to make sure the fleet takes Penric, not allowing him to stay and wreak more havoc.

In the interim, Pen had been a strong protector of the girls, and a good educator. Their native language was Roknari, but he teaches them a bit of Cedonian, Adrian, and Wealdian, and how to read and write in the various languages. Penric is a very honorable man, but he realizes many others are not. He feared what would happen to the girls if they remained slaves, although they were lucky the pirates had not molested them, thinking they would be more valuable as virgins. Another problem they would have is their alternate religious upbringing. Their mother was a Quadrene, as most Roknari were, worshipping only Four Gods. Their father was Quintarian, and they knew him well from his frequent visits to Raspay. On return to Vilnoc, they live with Pen and Nikys for a while, although more permanent arrangements are made. I won't reveal that, but it is possible they will recur since they are still in Vilnoc. There was a map with this novella, but I found an expanded one on a Five Gods wiki, which I've added below. It might be featured in a future book, I haven't checked yet. The first two novels were set in Chalion, the prequel The Hallowed Hunt in the Weald. Penric's story began near his home in the Cantons. The second group of three stories were set in Cedonia and Orbas. Based on its title, the next story in the sequence should be in Vilnoc, where we will find out what is up with The Physicians of Vilnoc. Hopefully it will be more pleasant than what compelled Penric to leave the Bastard's Temple in Martensbridge. I'll know next month.



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Included in the omnibus linked to at the top of the page, or buy Physicians for Kindle from Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission. Again, the only listing at Bookshop, other than the omnibus, is for back-ordered Audio CDs. If you want to search for the Subterranean hardcover, its ISBN is 9781645240211.

Posted October 6, 2023
Some months have passed since the end of the previous story, maybe a year or more. Penric and Nikys are still in Vilnoc, he working through the Bastard's temple there, but I'm not sure if she is still employed by the duke as governess to his youngest daughter, since they now have a daughter of their own. Florina, named after Adelis' mother, is three months old. Pen has been busy, aside from his sorcerer's duties, translating the second volume of Learned Ruschia's book on medical sorcery. Adelis arrives, but not for a family visit, and he will not enter the house. He demands Penric accompany him back to the fort to consult on a medical matter, which has overwhelmed his physicians and orderlies. Thus Nikys is not in the story again until the end, other than a few letters they are able to exchange during the ordeal. Instead of a quick consultation, Pen is at the fort, and other locations as the duty demands, for five weeks. The disease that has struck the fort is dubbed the "bruising fever" after its two most obvious symptoms; the fever coming first, then severe bruising, probably from internal bleeding.

There had already been several deaths, with the head army physician being a casualty shortly after he had informed Penric of the situation. Word comes from a nearby village of similar cases, then a physician from the Mother's temple in Vilnoc arrives with more sad news. The assistant army physician, now the head of that department, is an intelligent and hard working man, but without Pen's help he would likely have failed in caring for his patients, and been a casualty himself. Pen and Desdemona use sorcery to both observe the symptoms, and relieve some of the pain and fever, and hopefully hasten recovery, but for quite a while Pen is worried even he and his demon cannot do the miracles needed. What is needed is knowledge of the disease, its source and how it spreads. Too many people, in too many different locations, are affected. What is the connection? Another of Pen's worries is the situation might develop as did the one that forced him to leave Martensbridge, which I have only hinted about previously.

When Pen and Des perform healing sorcery it is termed "uphill" magic. Too much in too short a time taxes both Pen and Des's strength, overheating the body and spirit. To compensate, "downhill" magic relieves some of the pressure, which Pen does by going somewhere to kill vermin; rats, flies, fleas, ticks, etc. In this case, with so many patients to treat, the pressure builds up so much he has to kill larger animals, which he does for the butchers and cooks at the fort, providing meat for the soldiers' meals. When Pen was younger, in Martensbridge, after the death of his mentor the Princess-Archdivine, other people monopolized his time and his medical knowledge, so much so that if he had not fled that situation, both he and Des might have died. He doesn't want to go through that again, but his dignity and sense of service will not allow him to turn away from his current patients. The source is eventually found and dealt with, at least for the immediate time, and another thing Pen initiates is the preparation of other physicians who have the stamina to take on a demon, hopefully to build up a cadre of sorcerers capable of handling serious epidemics in the future.

Penric is once again strong of spirit, and his feelings of obligation to help wherever and whenever possible are paramount. Some still shy away from his sorcery, including some of the bruising fever patients, but he had the help of Rede, the army physician, and a much older sorcerer, Dubro, whom the soldiers felt more comfortable with, since he was from the area, and had been a soldier at the fort decades before he became a divine sorcerer. Dubro and Rede make a pact that, if at all possible and within their control, Rede will be the one to take Dubro's demon upon the older man's death. Again, I have no idea if any of these characters will reccur, or if Pen's efforts to create more sorcerer physicians will be successful. His translation work, which by this time also includes some of his own contributions to the texts, is sure to improve things for many others. As she did in the Vorkosigan books, Bujold's strengths are character development and intricate world-building. Not so much a unique literary style, but she is able to convey both nobility and morality in a very concise way. In spite of all the fantasy trappings, Penric's tale is as meaningful to us today, and likely for many years to come, as any other form of literature, or non-fiction for that matter. This ends another page of Penric's tales. Next month, on a new page, I'll take a look at the only novel length book, so far at least, and in December, another novella. I have no idea if Bujold plans any more beyond that.


Related Links:
Go back to the start of the series with Penric & Desdemona, Part 1
Then Part 2
And now Part 4
A list of all my Bujold reviews


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Lois McMaster Bujold

Omnibus: 2022

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