Penric and Desdemona

You may all have already known about this, but there’s another Penric and Desdemona novella out: The Physicians of Vilnoc. It came out in May, at which point I missed it; I just spotted it a couple of days ago and read it at once.

When a mysterious plague breaks out in the army fort guarding Vilnoc, the port capital of the duchy of Orbas, Temple sorcerer Penric and his demon Desdemona are called upon by General Arisaydia to resurrect Penric’s medical skills and solve its lethal riddle.

Wow, how … topical. I do wonder whether LMB had this plot in mind before the start of this year or not; and whether she thought about putting off its release or not. Anyway, fine, I said, I don’t mind a plague story, I guess. So I dove right in.

It is, I must say, not my favorite in the series. I understood why almost at once: there’s too little Desdemona in this story. What we have is a grueling medical ordeal in which Penric works as hard as he can and Desdemona sinks into silent endurance, basically. We get way less witty commentary than usual. Nothing new develops in the relationship between Desdemona and Penric, and nothing new develops in what Desdemona can do, and basically there is nothing new, period. Nikys is almost completely absent too, so there goes another chance to develop an important relationship.

There’s essentially no action either, other than grinding forward one day after another. No daring rescues or escapes, nothing like that. Pour uphill magic into one patient after another, collapse from exhaustion, repeat. I like the dog demon (of course), and I like the new sorcerer who accidentally picked up that little demon. But that element wasn’t enough to make the story sing. Not even close.

So … I liked it, obviously. It’s a perfectly fine story, in its way. But I’m hoping for something with a little more energy next time.

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6 thoughts on “Penric and Desdemona”

  1. Allan Shampine

    Agreed. Probably my least favorite story of the series. I thought at first it was just the plague theme, but reading your post, I think you are correct. No real character development, little interaction between Penric and Desdemona – the whole thing feels a bit like a typical day of the characters in the book, a long, slow slog. Still worth reading, but disappointing.

  2. That’s why I gave this story 4 stars instead of the usual 5 stars for a Penric and Desdemona story. You didn’t mention the visits to the abattoir to unload all that chaos after the healing. Still a good story and Bujold always has that ability to pull the reader in and feel for the characters. But, yes, felt like a long slog.

  3. I think I read on her blog that she’d started writing this before the pandemic, but it does feel a bit like a writer’s way to cope with the stress of the pandemic.

    On the other hand, it also seems like a logical next step in Penric’s career as both a scribe (dedicated to spreading knowledge) and a physician (dedicated to healing individual people) to try to broaden the knowledge of illness and healing, and then to continue on to teach and spread healthcare (and demon-managing) knowledge.
    It looks to me like the story-epidemic was meant to get him to realise what direction he wanted his life’s work to take. He’d been drifting from one situation to another, sometimes sent by his temporal or religious leaders, but by the end of this story he appeared to me to have an idea where he wants to go with his future.
    It also gives Desdemona a chance to help set up the new young demon for a useful and productive ‘life’, with a chance to grow the way Des herself has. Thus also increasing her capacity for caring to include the young demon, and thereby her own mental/spiritual growth. She might grow into a soul yet, herself, on this trajectory.

    It felt a bit like a set-up story to me in that sense, setting up the situation with the new sorcerer-doctor who needs teaching, and the butchers in the abbatoir now widely knowing what is necessary for a sorcerer to do the uphill healing work, as a prelude to a possible societal change by improving healthcare.
    Penric’s started that trajectory earlier by translating and expanding medical books, then making them more widely available by burning the book-printing plates for those. Now followed by the idea of setting up new medical training facilities, including incorporating a positive way to get rid of the extra chaos, in a way that did not alarm the populace and set them up against sorcerers.

  4. Like Hanneke, I thought this story gave Pen further clarity about how best to make use of his and Des’s abilities, given that Pen isn’t personally suited to practising medicine. That was enough of a new development to satisfy me.

    I was also relieved that this story didn’t fulfill its potential for being intense and harrowing (that’s not the sort of story I want to read at the best of times!) and that coloured how I felt about the whole book.

  5. Hmm. While clarity about his future direction is a good thing, a story that’s all set-up is a bit of a drag compared to a story that’s actually meant to be a story.

    I mean, there were plenty of nice details. But the story was still a drag. Depending on what LMB does next, this could be a reasonably good early-middle section of a longer story arc.

  6. When I saw the description of the story, I thought, “Oh, now we’re going to deal with Penric’s thing about being a doctor,” but the story didn’t really. He just slogged in and did the work, because, of course he’s Penric, he’ll do what he has to do, but I don’t think he or Desdemona addressed or in any way resolved his earlier trauma.

    Thinking of it as setting up for future arcs makes me feel better about it. I did like the medical-investigative aspect of it. And, yes, the young demon and Desdemona’s chance to be a mentor of sorts.

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