Recent reading: penric

So, yes, I’m still in the middle of one of the more recent Benjamin January mysteries, but I interrupted that to read Knot of Shadows, which is the most recent Penric / Desdemona novella.

Knot of Shadows (Penric & Desdemona) by [Lois McMaster Bujold]

PeteMack mentioned this here recently, which was helpful because I didn’t know it was out — came out last week, I see, now that I check. He gave it thumbs fairly emphatically down. (“It is essentially a ghost story, and doesn’t have much (any) dynamic tension. I rank it right at the bottom.”)

It is indeed a ghost story, more or less; or anyway, it’s a murder mystery with ghosts. However, I have to say, I liked it and don’t rank it right at the bottom. I think it’s pretty minor compared to a lot of the other Penric novellas, though.

Some spoilers below.

Things I liked:

It was pretty low-stress in a lot of ways. It’s nice to see everyone has their lives pretty much in order.

It had some decent Penric / Desdemona interaction.

It was a pleasant snapshot of what must be, pretty much, daily life in this world.

Things I didn’t like:

Well, yes, it’s true there wasn’t too much tension. Except the question, briefly, of whether the lost child was dead. I’d have been fine without that. Although I did like the discussion about what happens with the souls of very young children. That was an interesting question given the metaphysics of this world. Still, that was sad.

I felt bad for the brother. I mean, I agree with Penric handling that situation in the most practical way possible, but ouch, what an ending to the story from the brother’s point of view. I felt worse about this than about the dead child, and I wasn’t really keen on that.

In an unrelated note, I get that Penric was bending over backward not to conclude that the bad guy was the bad guy, but come on. I think we all pretty much knew he was the bad guy well in advance of having proof turn up.

Where I’d rank this one:

Here’s my updated list from top to bottom.

“Penric’s Demon” — it’s hard to beat the very first one.

“Penric’s Mission” — Nikys is such a great character. Penric has a chance to shine. So does Desdemona. This is just a wonderful novella.

“The Prisoner of Limnos” — Nikys continues to be a great character. Lots to like about this novella; plenty of plot twists and great supporting characters.

“Assassins of Thasalon” — I love all the continuing characters who played important supporting roles in this novella. There was a lot more going on here than in the other more recent novellas, too. It’s probably not coincidence that this novella is just about twice as long as “Knot of Shadows.”

“Penric and the Shaman” — I didn’t care as much for this story the first time I read it, but it grew on me later. However, I love Nikys and her mother and everything to do with her and her family, so nearly every novella that emphasizes them moves up and that means this one lands down here.

“The Orphans of Raspay” — good pacing, fun story, plenty of nice details, great ending. I liked it a lot.

“Mira’s Last Dance” — this story bugs me because it seems to re-cast the various memories contained within Desdemona as more like actual personalities than generally seems consistent with the metaphysics of the world. I like lots of things about the story, though.

“Penric’s Fox” — I like this story, but it’s always seemed forgettable to me.

“Knot of Shadows” — I expect it’s going to seem fairly forgettable too.

“Masquerade in Lodi” — for me, the astoundingly obvious “plot twist” knocked this story down a lot. It’s not great to go through a lot of the story shaking my head at how amazingly obtuse Penric is being. Not to mention Desdemona! She should never be so obtuse about people!

Update: Hanneke’s comment persuaded me to flip the two above. I hereby agree that “Knot” in infused with so much tragedy that I now think I would put “Masquerade” above “Knot of Shadows.”

“The Physicians of Vilnoc” — as close to boring as a Penric story can get; not nearly enough of Desdemona. The gray, grinding, depressing aura that clings to this story also doesn’t help it one bit.

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7 thoughts on “Recent reading: penric”

  1. Ahh! Thank you for mentioning this. Had no idea there was a new Penric out.

    Also, I like your ordering. Although I kind of wish there was some place below “dead last” where I could put The Physicians of Vilnoc. Maybe I should just bury it in a hole and pretend it doesn’t exist. I suspect I wouldn’t be quite as negative about it under other circumstances, but a bleak, depressing, grinding story about a pandemic IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC is not what I’m reading Bujold for (or anyone else for that matter).

  2. For me, it would go next to last, just above the Physicians. Or maybe even last, depending on how I feel about the grinding misery in that, compared to the grimness of the betrayals, deaths and zombies in this new one. Even though she doesn’t dwell on that, if I think about what happened it’s pretty grim, including the setting-up and likely murder in jail of the young man from the counting-house, and the horrible death of the lost child.

    Though anything she writes is not bad, this ghost story reads more like an intellectual exercise working out some obscure bits of the theology of the Five Gods, in the form of a story – and not a pleasant story, with all these deaths and the two zombies.

    Though the villain in Lodi was fairly obvious from early on, I found the story itself quite a bit more enjoyable.

  3. You know what, Hanneke, you’ve persuaded me. I agree. “Knots of Shadows” is indeed tragic in a whole bunch of way, although it wasn’t presented that way. The poor young man from the counting house, his mother, his uncle, AND the lost child. Whew. The grimness is pretty much unrelieved. I hereby drop “Knots” below “Masquerade.”

  4. But grimness might be OK if there were dramatic tension. The only hint of it is in ensuring the child is not sundered. It’s obvious from the start which dead body belonged to the sinner, because you couldn’t do death magic when *out for a walk*.

  5. I actually place Physicians a bit higher. Bujold apologized for putting it out in a pandemic–it was written the previous year. But no apology is needed: it is a salutory reminder of what the average ER/ICU nurse has been going through for a year and a half. I put Mira’s dance lowest, because it just doesnt fit with what we know of demons otherwise. And it seems like its primary purpose was to put off Nicki–that is, as a plot device in a longer arc.

  6. Ah, there’s a new Paladin novel and a new Penric, and I have to read 72 YA novels before the end of December, so I can’t stop to read them. (Though I might have to take a break for my sanity: why are all the YA novels so unrelentingly bloody??!)(I suppose Kingfisher will be somewhat gory, but she can’t match the bodycount in most of the books I’ve read so far!)

  7. I realized just now that I totally missed reading Masquerade in Lodi and The Assassins of Thasalon, though I’d purchased them—I actually had put off reading Physicians of Vilnoc for so long that I hadn’t read anything that came after. I caught up on them all this weekend, and then just went ahead and reread (almost) the whole series in order.

    I liked Mira’s Last Dance a lot, although the Mira personality is stronger than we’ve seen imprints be at other times—but even in the first novella we see the personalities speaking independently, so I think Mira is just the first one we really see Penric allow to direct his actions? Maybe I just like General Chadro. He’s a sweetheart.

    (Adelis is SUCH a grump though. I hope eventually we see more of what Lady Tanar sees in him, bc right now I’m rooting for Tanar & Bosha continuing their happy lives together, with Adelis only coming home occasionally to give them another child to raise.)

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