Penric & Desdemona novellas

Painting of a fair blond man with a long braid and a white shirt in a narrow boat in a canal; the setting looks a lot like Venice.

by Kristen B.

One of the delights of reading fantasy stories is the wide range of “what ifs” that authors cook up for our enjoyment. What if a hobbit went on an adventure and discovered a long-lost ring of power? What if a pack of werewolves lived in the Pacific Northwest? What if demonic possession was not an entirely dangerous or horrible affliction? Hold onto that last thought…

Lois McMaster Bujold, a long-time favorite author, always inflicts situations on her characters that stretch them to their utmost and confound them utterly. In one of her created universes, folks worship a pantheon of Five Gods – Father and Mother, Son and Daughter, and Bastard. The Bastard is the god of all things out of season and out of “sorts,” if you will. Demons are creatures of chaos belonging to the Bastard, and they can only exist in the “real world” if they inhabit a creature, usually some sort of wild animal. As one host dies, the demon jumps to the next closest creature, always looking to increase complexity of animal – eventually, sometimes, making it to a human.

Meet Desdemona, one of the oldest and most powerful demons. When she becomes invested in Penric kin Jurald, rather unexpectedly for both of them, she has the better part of 200 years of experience and brings an absolute wealth of knowledge with her. When Desdemona’s previous “rider” dies of heart failure, a great partnership is born between the old lady demon and her handsome new host. While Penric operates as the protagonist throughout the stories, Desdemona is my favorite. She provides ongoing pithy commentary in the vein of an older sister/aunt about the younger Penric’s decisions and passions. Honestly, Bujold’s way with wry commentary on humanity’s frailty and foibles is what keeps me coming back to her books.

Bujold has written more than ten novellas detailing the pair’s various adventures. They do seem to attract trouble as they sort out younger demons, practice spy-craft, fight pirates, court a wife for Penric, and solve plagues. In all the stories, the balance between performing useful magic and managing Desdemona’s chaotic outlets is variously hilarious and disturbing. The balance between politics and diplomacy and regular people’s daily lives provides depth and nuance.

So, have I tempted you? Here’s the bad news: the books were originally self-published electronically, but have since been produced in limited quantities and different formats. Here’s the good news: They are mostly stand-alone stories, so you don’t have to read them in any particular order. I do recommend starting with Penric’s Demon, where all the fun begins, but you don’t have to. After that, you can follow along with their adventures in Penric’s Fox, Masquerade in Lodi, The Physicians of Vilnoc, and all the many others.

If you get hooked like I am, other Maryland libraries carry the titles and collected anthologies (Penric’s Progress and Penric’s Travels) that we don’t and you can borrow them all via Interlibrary Loan/Marina. However you find them, I hope you find that a couple of the stories enchant and amuse you with such an interesting set of What Ifs.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball (but not all at the same time).

The Expanse: Book and TV series

The covers of the first and last books in the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes and Leviathan Falls. Both covers feature space ships: the first in blues and greys and the last in fiery yellows.

By Kristen B.

James S. A. Corey (pen name of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) has written a nine-book sprawling science fiction series about humanity among the stars and first contact (and beyond!). It all begins in Leviathan Wakes, with James Holden and the crew of (eventually) the spaceship Rocinante. You could say it’s an apt name, as Holden has a tendency to tilt at metaphorical windmills.

In this far-future novel, humanity populates Earth, Mars, and the asteroid belt beyond Mars where lucrative, dangerous mining takes place and people live mainly on ships and stations. Earth is ruled by the United Nations, which provides the bare basics to an overpopulated, under-resourced planet. Mars is still undergoing massive terraforming, so its population lives in a constrained and almost martial society. The Belters are the under-appreciated scruffy lower class of the solar system, and they are ready to change things – with revolution if necessary as the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance) flexes its muscles. The OPA’s politics walk the line between a new nationalism and terrorism, often depending on a character’s point of view.

In this strained atmosphere, the ice-hauling ship Canterbury, aboard which Holden is the executive officer, responds to an emergency beacon. To say nothing goes right about the situation is a massive understatement – as the Cant is destroyed, the Martian Navy is implicated, and its shuttle limps into Ceres Station with a crew of reluctant heroes. Meanwhile on station, Detective Joe Miller has been hired to locate Julie Mao, missing daughter of an interstellar magnate. Julie Mao is the thread that binds all the mysterious doings together, including the Cant‘s destruction, the OPA’s aggression, and a strange, deadly organism known as the “protomolecule.” This sounds complicated but is really just the set-up for the rest of the excellent, thrilling series.

Many smaller, personal stories held my attention within the larger framework, which helps make this massive undertaking worth the effort. Usually science fiction gives you a plot driven by big ideas or by identifiable characters to root for in strange situations – this has both! Naomi Nagata, Belter and engineer extraordinaire, stole my heart early and remained my favorite character with her deep backstory and good heart. I also love straightforward (blunt) mechanic Amos, who sees the world in simple terms of survival but who always has his crewmates’ backs. The list goes on as the world expands.

But wait … maybe you’re not ready to commit to nine books, all in excess of 500 pages? I mean, it’s a great way to lose track of time and what’s going on in the “real world.” Or maybe you’re a fan and want to experience the story via another medium? In that case, I highly recommend the TV series from SyFy channel and Amazon Prime, with the first four (of six) seasons available on DVD. The show follows the first few books to a remarkable degree, probably because the authorial team acts as producers. In some ways, the streamlined show moves even faster than the books, which is a feat. I love switching between Earth, Ceres Station, various ships, and other locales. Each separate set is completely realized and feels lived in. Also, the casting choices are, pardon the pun, stellar! There’s real chemistry among the Roci’s crew, as well as the folks who seem fully invested in the stakes of their individual story.

It’s a completely binge-able series, however you choose to interact with it – books, screen, or both.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and make soup in the winter.

Youth and Heartache in Four Volumes: Our Dreams at Dusk

Cover of "Our Dreams at Dusk" manga with a monotone illustration of the main character looking disheveled and distraught, with a cityscape in the background.

Content Warning: Suicidal ideation

by Khaleel G.

Reading a multi-book series can be a bittersweet thing. On one hand, you get to spend more time in the world of the story, more time with the characters, seeing them grow and change with each volume. On the other hand, even the best series must ultimately end, or risk devolving into endless sequels with lesser and lesser impact. How does an author balance continuing a story versus ending it?

In the world of graphic novels, this is an eternal problem. For superhero comics, authors and illustrators can swap in and out, resulting in entirely different styles – sometimes, Batman is a gritty noir detective, and other times, he’s an ultra-genius rubbing elbows with omnipotent aliens. For manga, authors don’t often get replaced, but over the course of a long series, the authors themselves change, for better and for worse. Compare the first volume of Bleach with the sixtieth, and you’ll see an incredible difference in visual and narrative style. It can be jarring, particularly if you’re reading it after years (or decades) of publication.

This is why a short series can pack more impact in a few volumes. Our Dreams at Dusk is a perfect example. The author, Yuhki Kamatami, wrote twenty-three chapters, which are collected into a mere four volumes. You can hold the entirety of the tale in your hands.

And it is a tale to read, one that I didn’t want to end. Tasuku Kamane is a teen, hiding his sexual identity from his family and peers. He’s gay, and he loves his table tennis clubmate, Toma – but he can’t say anything, he can’t be himself. When his classmates discover some gay erotica on his phone, he’s driven to self-harm and worse. But at that darkest point, he meets Someone. 

Someone is a person who refuses to be identified, or even really known. At the top of the town’s highest point, they appear like a spirit to Tasuku, talking to him with a quizzical honesty. They guide him to the Drop-in Center, a local hang-out spot for LGBTQ+ people, those who can’t really be themselves out in the town. It is an oasis for Tasuku, exactly what he needed at the moment he needed it.

Tasuku realizing his feelings: illustrated as shards of glass reflecting a wide variety of images.



Haruko and Saki are a lesbian couple who haven’t made their relationship public to their families, but at the Drop-in Center, they can be together with a degree of comfort. Tchaiko is an older gentleman, who makes fine coffee and plays Tchaikovsky for the group, but quietly hides his long-term relationship with his partner. And over time, we meet Shuji, a middle schooler who is wrestling with how to identify, and others, all seeking some zone in which they can be accepted.

It is not a wholly happy tale. Tasuku and the others don’t always find acceptance among their family and friends – or even each other, at times. Feelings are stepped on, and feelings are crushed. Tasuku himself even hurts others, in his growing understanding of gender, resulting in some chapters that were incredibly hard to read. 

But by the end of the fourth volume, people have changed, mostly for the better. We see a small slice of each character’s journey, which will assuredly continue after closing the book. I put off reading the final volume for months, not wanting the story to end – partly because I didn’t want to discover an unhappy ending for anyone, and partly because I didn’t want it to be over. But it ends as best it can, and for that, I am grateful. Even Someone has their mystery revealed (but not the whole of it, just as they’d prefer). 

There is a certain aspect of Our Dreams at Dusk that feels like checking off the boxes of the LGBTQ+ experience, ensuring the story represents some major facets of gender and sexual identity. On one hand, it can seem a bit forced, but on the other hand, I wasn’t thinking about that at all – the art carried me along, finding ways to say what words couldn’t. This is the sort of illustration that captures youth and longing, commitment and family, those experiences that are universal and those that are entirely specific to one human being. The art is sometimes fragile, and sometimes harsh, but it always finds a way to visually speak to the interior experience, in that way only masterpieces of graphic novels do. 

Our Dreams at Dusk is an LGBTQ+ story, but to sell it as only that wouldn’t be right. It’s a coming of age story, and a love story, and a mystery, with comedy and tragedy laced throughout. I’ve not read anything else quite like it in manga. Its handling of its characters and LGBTQ+ issues, particularly from a Japanese perspective, are unique, and all of this is built upon an amazing art style that shows off what this medium can do.

I can’t recommend it enough – to readers of manga, of LGBTQ+ fiction, and of quality books of any stripe. Plus, as I said, it’s only four volumes! So if you’re a tad nervous about reading a graphic novel series for the first time, this is a great one to start with, if you can handle a bit of heartache along the way.

Our Dreams at Dusk by Yuhki Kamatani is available in print from HCLS.

Khaleel has worked at the Miller Branch since 2015, though he’s been back and forth between HCLS and high school, college, and graduate school since 2003.