Blink and you miss ‘em… Lois McMaster Bujold has released two Penric and Desdemona novellas in the past year when I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t know how these releases keep on passing me by, I really don’t.
Usually, these novellas are mostly light-hearted fun, but the first one, The Physicians of Vilnoc, might be a little uncomfortably timely, as it revolves around a plague. Looking at the publication dates, I don’t think Bujold did this on purpose, as she would have started writing this well before the current pandemic started.
Chronologically, The Physicians of Vilnoc is one of the latest in the series. Penric is at home with his small family when he gets a message from General Arisaydia about a strange new illness that’s striking down the soldiers at his fort. The general himself has little to no medical knowledge, but he knows Penric trained as a physician, as he himself was once at the receiving end of Penric and Desdemona’s healing efforts. As General Arisaydia also happens Penric’s brother-in-law, Penric feels rather obliged to go to his aid.
Things are pretty grim once he arrives at the fort. Not only has the spread of the disease gotten worse since the General sent his summons, but the fort’s most senior physician, Master Orides, has also died in the interim. So it’s up to Penric and Desdemona to help heal the sick while trying to find the source of this medical mystery.
There are certainly some parallels here with current events. The underlying current of fear is one: the main mystery of the story is where the hell the plague originated from, and can it be stopped before it spreads into the POW camps and the city of Vilnoc. There’s also the more personal fears of Penric: like many healthcare workers working during the COVID outbreak, the weight on Penric’s shoulders is threatening to overwhelm him. He’s also unable to return to his wife and child for the duration of the outbreak, in fear that he will become the vector that allows the disease to speak.
Like all the other Penric novellas, The Physicians of Vilnoc is tightly written and engaging. But I felt that after the stress of most of the story the resolution came a little too easy.
The most recent novella, Masquerade in Lodi, is a much more traditional mystery for both Penric and Des. Its also a considerable leap back in time, falling between Penric’s Fox and Penric’s Mission. Just like in The Physicians of Vilnoc, we find poor Penric absolutely knackered. He’s only recently left Martensbridge and his life as a full-time physician/healer—something he still angsts about in the Physicians of Vilnoc—and he’s exhausted. The city of Lodi is currently holding a Bastard’s Day celebration, which is like Venice’s Carnivale with the serial numbers rubbed off, and it might provide a nice distraction of Penric for the time being. But of course, as with anything to do with the Bastard, nothing ever goes smoothly.
Pen and Des are summoned to the hospital in Lodi to examine an unidentified young man who was dragged out of the ocean and is very much worse for wear. His condition is little more serious than just sunstroke or having taken a couple too many gulps of seawater. The poor man has either gone completely mad—or is demon-possessed. The latter would be a very grave situation, so the temple adempts reckon it would be great if the poor fellow could be kept under observation for a while for further assessment. But nope—he gives them the slip and Pen and Des have to go running through the streets of Lodi trying to find him before his maybe-demon jumps ship and finds itself a new host.
This is a pretty short instalment, and a little more lighthearted than Physicians. There was plenty of delightful banter between Pen and Des which is one of my favourite elements in the series. And while the story doesn’t exactly and much to the development of our two protagonists—its an inter-qual, after all—we are rewarded with some nice little worldbuilding tidbits.
Neither of these novellas is as substantial other entries in the series, such as Penric and the Shaman and Penric’s Mission. But they are still highly enjoyable, and the latter at least is exactly what I look for in a comfort read.