I have been in a bit of a reading slump. Lots of stress and other distractions. But the news that one of my favourite authors had published a new novel in the Penric series got me reading! I bought the novel, zipped through it and then reread the whole series. Most of the titles are fairly long novellas, only the last has been noted as a novel, but they are long novellas. The series follows a young man who accidentally acquires a demon and becomes a sorcerer in a fantasy world. Bujold wrote three other novels set at various times in this world, which she now refers to as the “World of Five Gods”, although it was initially the Chalion series (first two books are set in a country called Chalion) There are Five Gods: The Father, The Mother, The Daughter, The Son and The Bastard. Each has their season and their special focus. The Bastard, a child of the Mother and a demon is the God of things out of season. The Penric stories do not go into great theological detail, but the Gods in this world are real, and do interact with people. The Bastard is the God associated with demons, which sometimes escape into the world and possess animals and people. Most of the time this is bad, and they must be cleansed (by Saints) but sometimes the demon and the person work together and these are sorcerers. They undertake a variety of tasks, including medical, and the demon can be passed from human to human, upon death. Brief review/commentary below. There may be slight spoilers, because it is a series. The books can be read in jumbled order though- this is one of the things i really like about Bujold, the stories always stand on their own. Penric’s Demon This is the first book and sets out the story of how Penric acquires his demon, accidentally, and how he is allowed to keep it. Penric is the youngest son of a fairly impoverished noble family and is on his way to his wedding when he happens upon a travelling divine (religious person) and her group. The divine has been taken ill and is dying by the side of the road. He offers to help her, she accepts his offer, gifting her demon as she dies. This is not so good for Penric; wedding called off, hauled off to a distant town to be rid of the demon, lots of suspicion. But he gets to know his demon and her accrued echo of the 10 previous human “riders” and names her. This is a good start to the series. It’s essentially an origin story – how he gets his powers, the challenges in having them and a conflict where he accepts them. Penric and the Shaman This is a bit of a mystery story, with insights into both the hunted (the shaman) and the hunter(Penric). It introduces another element of the world, which is the animal shaman’s that are part of the culture where Penric is. While sorcerers and demons are the province of the Bastard, shamans are the province of the Son. There are two intertwining mysteries here and it is a nice self-enclosed story that also fleshes out some of the information from one of the other books in the world. A young man has died, seemingly in the process of trying to become a shaman and his friend has disappeared. There are also some very intelligent dogs that don’t seem to have their master anymore. This story is set a year or two after the first, and shows Penric growing. He gains friends and knowledge and this establishes his scholarly character a bit. Penric’s Fox This is set not too long after the shaman story and once again is a mystery. A sorcerer has been murdered, which is rare, and Penric is helping investigate. The mystery of why she was murdered is key and the clues are there, but are not clear until the end. Masquerade in Lodi This one is set a few years after the first three stories, but was the second most recently published. Bujold often goes back and fills in history adding depth to the overall story. In this one Penric has left his medical apprenticeship – and has moved somewhere quite different. The reasons for his leaving are teased out over several of the books and are important, but are also important in how they are revealed and talked about. This story is set close to that time and elaborates on the issues that are not so evident in the later stories. He is in his new city, on the eve of Midsummer, which is known as Bastard’s day and the subject of a city wide festival. As a divine in the Bastard’s service, he is expected to enjoy. Instead he spends the night supervising a young Saint of the Bastard, trying to find a demon infected young man who is loose in the city. Things are not quite what they seem, people have hidden motives and there are challenges. Penric’s Mission A few years on and Penric is sent on a secret mission to communicate with a general in a neighbouring country. Things are very much not what they seem and he is captured and imprisoned. The general he is supposed to be meeting with is arrested and tortured. He feels compelled to help the general and his sister. That’s a really basic description of a very compelling story. The problem is there are significant spoilers in the detail. It’s a story which plays on his natural inclinations, the history of his demon and the political circumstances. Mira’s Last Dance A close sequel of the preceding book. Penric and his friends are escaping the country, but they need resources. The usual methods are unavailable in the town they are in, and they know pursuers are catching up. They seek refuge in a house of ill repute and work on a disguise for the physically distinct Penric. All of the previous humans involved with the demon prior to Penric were female, and one was a courtesan. Their personalities form part of the demon, so the disguise is to be as courtesan retiring to to the country. In this guise he catches the eye of a visiting military man and has to handle the interest. YMMV but the fear seems to be less that he will discover that she is a man than he will discover that she is the fugitive he is looking for. It’s a more self contained story where Penric and his companions are coming to terms with his feminine side and with a bit of a twist at the end. The Prisoner of Limnos A fairly close follow up to the previous two. The mother of Penric’s love interest is being held captive and Penric must help rescue her A bit of an adventure story and intrigue. They have to sneak back into the neighbouring country and Penric must again disguise himself as a woman. The Orphans of Raspay Pirates! Penric is captured by pirates and while held captive must rescue two orphan girls. Adventure and humour. The physicians of Vilnoc An illness breaks out at the fort and Penric is called upon to help. A little on the nose to read in pandemic times! This shows Penric as he matures and is good, if a little harder to read at the moment. The Assassins of Thasalon When Penric’s brother in law is the subject of an unusual assassination attempt, it sets him off on another adventure. The assassins is using demon magic, which is a theologically fraught issue. Politics, a return to past history and some restorative justice. Overall, these are good reads. I sometimes find them too emotionally fraught and have to skip ahead (yep, even though i have read them before) but the emotion is well developed and holds out. I appreciate that the villain is not always the obvious villain and that characters are allowed to have nuance and doubt. I have just written an epic on these- but they have been an engaging read at a time when i have been struggling to concentrate.
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