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).