One of my favorite authors, Lois McMaster Bujold, has written a series of novellas about Penric and Desdemona, a wizard and a demon who help people needing the services of wizards and demons. Penric, tall, handsome, and charming, is just what a young widow named Nikys needs when her brother, General Adelis is accused of treason and blinded by boiling vinegar. Penric, an secret sorcerer and physician, posed as a simple courier when he provided the documents showing Adelis had sought employment in a neighboring kingdom. Adelis’ jealous associates accused him of treason and removed the popular general from power by blinding him.
Penric, sometimes too trusting for his own good, is bashed in the head after he delivers the damning papers. He’s thrown into a bottle prison with a broken skull and left to die. Poor simple Penric would have perished if not for the help from the demoness Desdemona whom he carries inside his head. Of the ten people Desdemona has inhabited over the last two hundred years (all of them female but not all of them human), two of them were expert physicians. Using her magic, she patches up his skull by killing the surrounding bugs and vermin. To work spells, something has to die, and nobody misses rats and bedbugs.
Penric escapes, learns the general has been released to his widowed sister, and poses as a physician sent by Adelis’ men to care for the general. As a member of the household, he’s smitten with the spunky sister, and he and Des work to restore Adelis’ vision, slipping out at night to kill wharf rats. Nikys is taken with him, too, and half of the story is told from her point of view as she learns about the demon and Penric being responsible for her brother’s blindness.
In typical Bujold fashion, Nikys is a strong female figure in a man’s world, and with her help, Penric and Adelis survive an attack at her home when her brother’s opponents discover he can see. Forced to flee with only the clothes on their backs (Adelis is forced to wear his sister’s clothes, much to his chagrin), the trio set out to a neighboring country pursued by soldiers. During their journey, Adelis leaves Penric behind although Ny is against it for several reasons: she thinks they have a better chance with a wizard and he’s kinda cute.
When Penric and the soldiers catch up with them, there’s a battle with another wizard and his baby demon who gives Penric a heart attack. Nikys, Adelis, and Des fight off the soldiers and escape over the mountains.
This may be a novella and part of a larger package, but it’s highly satisfying on its own merits at 259 pages. The characters are wonderfully flawed and so determined you can’t help rooting for them. I can’t wait to read the next installment.