A Tunnel in the Sky

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Penric & Desdemona, Part 4
by Lois McMaster Bujold

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 12, 2023
Edits and Addenda on December 3, and January 31, 2024

The Assassins of Thasalon / Knot of Shadows / Demon Daughter

Buy for Kindle from Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission. Once again, Bookshop only has it listed for out of stock audio CDs. If you want to search for the Subterranean hardcover, its ISBN is 9781645240891.

The only novel length story in this series (so far), The Assassins of Thasalon sees Penric traveling to Cedonia for the third time. The first was when he was working for a duke in Adria, tasked with recruiting General Adelis Arisaydia to defect and align with Adria. That didn't happen. Instead, Penric was able to help the general and his sister, Nikys, escape Cedonia and go to its neighber to the south, Orbas. Penric also stayed in Orbas, working through the Bastard's Temple in Vilnoc, and occasionally for Adelis's new superior, Duke Jurgo. The second time Pen traveled to Cedonia was to rescue Nikys' mother, held prisoner on the isle of Limnos. After that adventure, Pen and Nikys married, and they now have a daughter, with another child on the way.

Cedonia is still in political and military turmoil, with certain factions fearful of Adelis returning for revenge against those who had branded him a traitor. Others are anxious to get him to return to his old position, to right the wrongs corrupt officials had enabled. An assassin is sent south to kill Adelis, but luckily Pen is with him at the time and is able to fend off that attack, the assassin being the rider of an immature demon, hardly a match for Pen and Desdemona. That assassin was able to escape, but Pen suspected they would try again. They did, and Pen was able to capture her for interrogation. I won't go into what he learns from her, nor what she learns from him. Pen is able to maintain the fiction that Adelis is at his house recovering from the assassination attempt, then disguised as a book merchant Pen travels overland to Cedonia, while Adelis goes by boat, both headed for Thasalon. Pen had not yet been to Cedonia's capital city, although he came close twice, but it is necessary now to go into the belly of the beast and search for those who had directed the assassin.

Pen has another ally, a saint from another temple, whose task it will be to extract the demon from a rogue sorcerer, the one who had directed the assassin, and who had previously been involved in the deaths of at least three other rivals to the throne. Other allies are Tanar, the woman Adelis had courted before his departure from Cedonia, and her bodyguard Bosha, who had aided Pen and Nikys in the rescue of her mother. Tanar's mother, the Lady Xarre, is the head of a vast shipping empire, so her wealth and connections are also central to the endeavor. Even though a novel, this isn't that long, about twice the length of the average for the novellas. Bujold wastes no words here, no filler, everything propels the plot, revealing all the details Pen faces that must be overcome. He again impresses most of those he encounters, or in some cases baffles his adversaries. The rogue sorcerer's demon is also no match for Desdemona, nor a match for the saint who extracts the demon. No way to know yet if things will be better in Cedonia, but Adelis gets his old position back, a new coalition forms of the surviving regents, and Tanar gets her long awaited wish, marriage to Adelis.

Not looking ahead to the next story yet, I only know this one ends with Pen returning to Vilnoc, where Nikys awaits, and their second child awaits its birth. With the aid of Desdemona's special Sight, Pen knows it is a boy, and that it is healthy. I also have no idea if Knot of Shadows will be the last Bujold writes of these characters, but it is the last so far, published more than two years ago. I will read and review it next month..

*     *     *

Buy for Kindle from Amazon. Bookshop's only listing for this single story is for audio CDs, surprisingly in stock, at this time at least. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission. You may be able to find used copies of the Subterranean hardcover, the ISBN for which is 9781645241140.

Posted December 3, 2023
It has been over two years since the publication of Knot of Shadows. Bujold has not published any other new story, with no word on anything new about Penric in the future. This is as good a tale as all the rest, but I hope it is not the last. [EDIT: It's not; see below.] There have been several characters who have recurred after their first appearance. This time it is Alixtra, whom I mentioned above, but not by name. She is the Cedonian assassin who attempted to kill Adelis, twice, but both times was thwarted by Penric. When the saint attempted to extract her demon, the White God, the Bastard, instead said she was to keep the demon and channel its powers for good. Penric took her under his wing, teaching her how to control the demon, how to use its Sight. She is an acolyte now, serving in the Bastard's temple in Vilnoc, occasionally helping Penric, as she does for his latest case.

In the beginning I thought this would be too similar to an earlier story, Masquerade in Lodi, which saw Penric dealing with a man fished out of the sea, possessed by a demon which had previously been in a dolphin. Word comes from the Mother's temple of a strange case; a man, apparently drowned, pronounced dead, who later comes back to life, or at least his body is reanimated in some way. This time it is not a demon, but a ghost, which Penric suspects was the result of demonic magic. That is when a mortal person calls upon a demon to kill someone else, offering up their soul to the gods in exchange for the sundered soul of the person they want dead. It is not a very common practice since the mechanics of the spell are not well known, just stories handed down through the generations. Certain objects need to be used, certain incantations spoken, but most times the process is not successful. It is so uncommon that Penric recalls receiving just minimal instruction on it while in seminary, never to be thought of again. Until now.

I was a little confused about the process myself. The person casting the spell gives up their soul, but in this case another soul comes into their body, from a person who had died at approximately the same time, and in close proximity. I'm not positive, but I assume the drowned man received the soul of someone else who died near him, or else the soul in his body was from the one who cast the spell. Once Pen realized what had happened, he needed to find the body of the soul that had entered the spell-caster, in order to assure that soul was not sundered, meaning not received into the care of one of the gods. Alixtra doesn't have a prominent role, but it is clear she is a quick learner, very eager to atone for her previous wrong-doings. She had been forced into her role of assassin because her superiors were holding her son for ransom. Once those responsible were dealt with and her son returned to her, she once again became the loving mother she had previously been. But still in possession of a demon.

I suspect there are still quite a few adventures in store for Penric and Desdemona, even if we never get to read them. This series was a spin-off from the three World of the Five Gods novels. If Bujold doesn't write about Penric anymore, she could possibly start another spin-off series focused on Alixtra, or maybe flashbacks to Desdemona and the ten women she had inhabited in the past. I would also welcome a Nikys-centric story. Only time will tell, but whatever Bujold chooses to write I will want to read it. One of these days I will get to her Sharing Knife series, which I have, and the stand-alone novel, The Spirit Ring, which I don't have yet. However, I hope she returns to Penric, perhaps with another novel to tie up all the loose ends, if only to find out how good a father he might be. I suspect he will be as successful in that endeavor as he has with his sorcerer's duties..

*     *     *

Buy for Kindle from Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission. No listing at Bookshop, although that may change if it is released in audio, Subterranean publishes a hardcover, or if Baen collects it in another omnibus with the two titles above.

Posted January 31, 2024
The twelfth Penric & Desdemona story was published about three weeks ago. The date at Amazon, ISFDb, and fantasticfiction.com all match, but doesn't seem right, since January 7 was a Sunday. It came as a surprise to me since I had not seen any prior mention of it. I reviewed the previous eleven titles last year, one a month, starting in February. The way this one ends makes me sure it will not be the last. There have been a few characters who have recurred after their initial appearance, but not as much or as many as I expected. The new character added now is likely to feature prominently in any future story.

Otta is a six-year-old girl on a trading ship owned by her father, her mother being his concubine who he had previously bought as a slave from pirates. The scene on the ship does not last long. One of the crew, a boy not much older than Otta, obviously thought he would be scaring her with a rat he had just caught. Instead, she thinks it is cute and cuddly, and takes it from him. But First Mate had other ideas. He takes the rat from her and throws it overboard, Otta pining for it as she sees it sink into the sea. The story switches to Vilnoc, where Penric still lives, working for the Bastard's Temple there, and Duke Jurgo on occasion. An acolyte of the Daughter's Temple comes to him with a message from a nearby fishing village. A young girl had washed up on shore. The local temple priest was sure she was demon possessed, since fires kept spontaneously starting around her. He had thrown her into an old, mostly dry well, then sent for help. Nikys accompanies Penric on this assignment.

This is not the Nikys-centric story I have been anticipating, but she does help, her motherly instincts smoothing the way with Otta, even though she knows little of the Roknari language the girl speaks. But Penric does, which surpirses Otta, and she is also surprised a demon-possessed sorceror is not the malevolent entity she expected from Rocknari legends. Penric suspects the rat had been the source of the very immature elemental demon now inside Otta. The task is to help her control her fear and anxiety, which had been the trigger for the fires. Otta says First Mate had thrown her overboard when he suspected she was the source of the fires on the ship. She does not know if the ship had sunk, or if not, if anyone on board had died because of the fires. The balance of the story shows how Penric teaches Otta how to control and understand what is happening to her, and it is an indication of how good a teacher he must be for other divines and sorcerers.

It has been almost twenty years since Penric acquired Desdemona, and over nine since he married Nikys. Their daughter Rina is a year older than Otta, and their son Wyn is about four. The family is happy and prosperous, everyone pitching in for all chores, Penric even helping with laundry and other things. Otta is welcomed into their home while Pen considers the options. He contacts his old friend, the saint Iroki, who eventually replies that he should bring Otta to him, and for him to bring Otta into the presence of the Bastard, who will determine what happens to Atto, which is the name given to her demon. Otta needs to find out what happened to her parents and their ship, even if she decides not to return to them. If she is able to keep Atto, she will be required to attend seminary to become a divine sorceress.

There are a few things different about this story. Bujold always writes in third-person, and I may be wrong, but this is the first time I noticed people being referenced differently scene to scene. It appears there are times the perspective is Otta's, since it is always Learned Penric, or Madame Nikys, rather than just their names. I'm talking about just exposition, not Otta speaking. The other difference relates to how Otta reacts to Desdemona. Previously, other possessed people and their demons were frightened of Desdemona, but it is not that way with Otta. Also, even though there have been occasional conflicts of opinion between the two, this is the first time I can recall that Desdemona is very angry with Pen. It is because of Des's desire to see Otta keep Atto, regardless of the consequences. Thus when that does happen, the tension between sorcerer and demon is resolved. It also begs the question of the intention of the title. Is Otta now the daughter of Penric and Nikys, or is Atto the daughter of Desdemona? If there is to be more to this sequence I hope those questions are answered. If there is, I will read them, and will create a fifth page to continue the adventure.


Related Links:
Go back to the start of the series with Penric & Desdemona, Part 1
Continue with Part 2
Then Part 3
A list of all my Bujold reviews

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Lois McMaster Bujold

Assassins - 5/11/21
Knot - 10/21/21
Daughter - 1/7/24

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