Reviews for ‘Penric’s Travels’ and ‘The Orphans of Raspay’ by Lois McMaster Bujold

Continuing my quest to read all the ‘Penric & Desdemona’ books, here are my reviews for novellas 5 through 8 (internal chronological order). Here’s my review of the first 4 novellas.

Spoilers below

Penric’s Mission

This is my first time reading this novella, and I must say that I made a mistake holding off so long. This is my favorite ‘Penric’ novella so far, barring ‘Masquerade.’ In short, I enjoyed the introduction of Nickys and General Stick-in-the-Mud… I mean General Adelis. They both need more characterization to be fully fleshed characters, but what we got here was a good jumping off point for the second half of the series.

In particular, I loved the sub-plot of Penric’s Missions in Cedonia. He has two missions: the official mission is as a spy, but his unofficial (but more important!) mission was sent by his god to save someone’s soul. I’ll begin with the spying mission. I appreciated how the spying mission was immediately subverted, with Pen being arrested for spying within pages of the novella beginning.

And about the soul-saving mission. The book mentions early on that Penric, as a priest, feels responsible for protecting people, both physically and morally. The only difference between a hedge sorcerer and a temple sorcerer is just that- a selfless concern over people’s souls. When Penric tries to help the prime antagonist reform, he does so on the principle of Penric wanting to help save the antagonist’s soul.

Throughout the book we’re left guessing who’s soul is meant to be saved- until the very end of the book when it’s revealed that Pen is supposed to help train an foreign, novitiate sorcerer in the ways of ‘don’t be a jerk’ sorcery.

I also liked the setting. The byzantine court politics which take place in this book remind me of Byzantine Roman politics, where powerful people were blinded to reduce their power and make them no longer political threats.

Mira’s Last Dance

This is a re-read for me (here’s my initial review). This book improved with the re-read- specifically because I read this in close succession to ‘Penric’s Mission.’ This novella is a close follow up to ‘Mission,’ occurring within days of that story.

I think this is arguably the best ‘Penric’ novella on a technical level. It is a short, simple story which tells it’s story well. This is a perfectly contained ‘bottle’ narrative, with small stakes which begin and end in this story. I usually like to describe a book’s concept and execution when I do reviews: the author knew what concept she wanted to do, and she executed upon it in a masterful fashion.

Here’s the concept: To escape pursuit after a spying mission gone wrong, Penric must cross-dress, pretend to be a high-class courtesan and seduce an enemy general who is pursuing them. Penric is a demon-possessed sorcerer, and his demon Desdemona was such a high-class courtesan in a prior life- a courtesan by the name of ‘Mira’. To pull off this endeavor, Penric must learn to trust Desdemona/Mira to pull of the masquerade. The story wraps up with Penric saving the love of his life Nickys as well as her stick-in-the-mud brother Adelis. (BTW, having Adelis playing the trope of the ‘straight man’ in this compared to Penric’s antics worked very well as a narrative mechanism for humor.)

I just loved the characterization of both Penric and Desdemona/Mira got in this one. In long-running series, characters run the risk of getting dull and repetitive; this story proves that Penric and Desdemona will always be full of surprises.

Above all, this story is fun. No grimdark depressingness to be seen.

The Prisoner of Limnos

This is a well written story, which once again involves an amount of Penric cross-dressing (though not nearly as much, nor as hilarious as in the last story). In short, Penric and Nickys must go under cover into an all-woman island nunnery to rescue Nickys’ mother, who’s been taken captive after the events of the last story. Penric and Nickys must learn to trust strangers (as well as one another) in this swashbuckling tale of daring-do.

After the prior review, I don’t have much new to say about this one. I had a good time reading this, and liked the new characters who were introduced. I especially liked Penric and Nickys’ growing romance. I would, however, like to see a solo adventure with just Nickys and not Penric, so we get to see her in a vacuum, and give her more solo characterization and not just characterization in the context of Penric- a la what Bujold did with ‘Flowers of Vashnoi.’

I do have two quibbles:

First, some of the grammar in this felt… not quite right. I never noticed any misspellings, or any sentences where were grammatically inaccurate on a technical level. Instead, a few of the sentences felt either A) deliberately archaic in style, to the point of kicking me out of reading the book or B) like the author/editor missed clunky sentences when doing their edits. If option A is true… fair enough, this is a medieval fantasy series.

Second, this felt about 20 or 30 pages too long, feeling a bit bloated in the first half. The book took a while to get into high gear, and there was very little tension early on. To simplify what I’m trying to say, the protagonists were not in danger for the first 3/4s of the story. If the characters were attacked in the first half of this book, I would have enjoyed it more, due to the feeling of them being under threat (similar to the narrative mechanism the author used in ‘Mission’ above). As this book is only 140 pages long, I’m willing to overlook this flaw.

The Orphans of Raspay

Another excellent story in the ‘Penric’ series. To summarize, Penric and Desdemona have been taken captive by pirates, with the intent to make him a slave. When they are thrown in the galley prison, Penric makes friends with his bunkmates, two twin preteen girls who are destined for (probably) sex slavery. Penric must save himself and the girls. They must escape an island prison with no friends or resources.

This was great! I loved the dynamic of the protagonist constantly having to look out for not just himself, but also his two wards. Instead of smiting the pirates with lots of sorcery, he had to restrain himself to protect the girls. Penric was fighting with a handicap, and it made for good reading.

I did have two quibbles with this one.

I liked how the author explored a different culture than usual, one where both Quintarians and Quadrienes live side by side. However, I would have loved if the author went deeper into exploring this cultural divide. How do these people live side by side?

Second, the more of these ‘Penric’ books I read, I realize that some of these novellas lack the ‘theological coolness’ aspect that the main-line books in this series possess. For example, in ‘Curse of Chalion,’ the author explores how free will is deeply important to a divine magic system/the afterlife, and how people can willingly sever themselves into damnation due to bitterness and regret. The gods need worthy vessels to channel their magic, and the process of becoming ‘worthy’ is EXTREMELY painful and EXTREMELY difficult. That’s the only way to gain a holy revelation and summon divine magic. Going back to ‘Curse,’ Cazaril can only channel magic after he has died three times- three extremely painful moments of character development.

AKA the magic system depends on ‘narrative character development.’ That’s why this series’ magic feels so good; plot advancement (the holy revelation/magic) and character advancement (enduring pain and difficulty) are tied hand in hand. The character arcs in this series feel stronger than other series’ character arcs because their personal arcs exist synergistically by the plot arc; similarly, this series’ plot arcs feel stronger than other series’ plot arcs because the plot arcs exists synergistically with the individual character arcs.

The setting’s magic gives the setting a truly mystical sheen, unlike anything else I’ve read in the genre. The problem for why it’s not in this mini-series, I think, is that due to the magic system requiring ‘narrative character development.’ In a 11+ book series, it’s really really hard to have EXTREMELY painful and EXTREMELY difficult ‘narrative character development’ for your protagonist in all 11 books. If the author tried that, Penric would become a depressed woobie and it becomes impossible to take them seriously. (Can you imagine if Cazaril was the protagonist of an 11 book series? Poor guy. He’d turn into Fitz after the amount of emotional suffering the gods would put him through.)

I think the author did the right thing with not focusing on the ‘narrative character development’ magic system in this series. Still, I like the whole ‘holy revelation’ magic system, and I wish the author included it more.

Favorite to least favorite:

  • Mira’s Last Dance (5 Stars)
  • Masquerade at Lodi (4 Stars)
  • Orphans of Raspay (4 Stars)
  • Penric’s Mission (4 Stars)
  • Prisoner of Limnos (3 Stars)
  • Penric’s Demon (3 Stars)
  • Penric and the Shaman (3 Stars)
  • Penric’s Fox (3 Stars)

(For reference, 3 stars is what I default to for to everything which is good.)

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