Penric & Desdemona series review vol. 3: “The Physicians of Vilnoc,” “The Assassins of Thasallon,” and “The Knot of Shadows”

Continuing my series review…

The Physicians of Vilnoc

Mea culpa, I like reading books about doctors, healers and other medical professionals. I am right now in the midst of editing a story starring a medic. When I was an undergraduate, I took some medicine-adjacent biology classes. To say I am in this series’ target audience is an understatement.

This book is Penric at his most medical. Shortly after Pen and Nickys have their firstborn child, there is a disease outbreak in Vilnoc. Penric & Desdemona are the only hope to figure out the cause of the disease… before it’s too late.

This is my second favorite book in the series. The tension and stakes felt very tight in this, because Pen/Des constantly feel worried that if they don’t find a cure/vector for disease spread, then Pen’s daughter might get sick and die. Counterbalancing this urge to work hard to save lives, is Penric’s innate dislike for healing people. In the past Pen was overworked by the Temple, to the point of becoming depressed and quitting the medical profession. There’s a great push-pull dynamic in this, where Pen needs to work hard to save his family/friends, but at the same time he feels a primal urge to pull back due to overwork.

Finally, I enjoyed having Pen and Des working with other sorcerers in this story. It made me want to have more of this, perhaps having the pair of them featured in a story where they have to hunt down a proper hedge sorcerer, like the one featured in ‘Paladin of Souls.’

The Assassins of Thasalon

This is a full-length novel, instead of the usual Penric novella- however even though it is longer, it didn’t feel bloated, as too many fantasy novels can feel.

I truly enjoyed this book. I don’t really want to talk about it too much, for fear of spoilers. I went into this completely blind, and was pleasantly surprised with how it improved my expectations for what was to come.

I’ll just say that General Adelis (Penric’s brother-in-law) is the former pre-eminent general of the Empire of Cedonia, and Cedonia has a history of military revolutions bringing in new Emperors. The main plot of ‘Penric’s Mission’ involved Adelis almost being blinded by forces seeking to remove him as a potential threat for future emperor. Those same forces are at it again in this story, sending assassins after him this time. This time around it’s kill-or-be-killed, forcing Penric and Adelis to go at it again.

Finally, this book is excellent BUT ONLY in the context of being read as a followup for “Penric’s Mission” and “Mira’s Last Dance” and “Prisoner of Limnos.” This book provides a capstone on the arc which connects all of them.

I give this 3 stars (Three being my standard for a ‘good’ book). I have some quibbles. First, I want more of Nickys. For the last few books Nickys has been shoved from the limelight. I’d like to perhaps a Nickys+Desdemona story, with no Penric. Maybe Penric is unconscious so Desdemona must use his body, or maybe Desdemona temporarily gets to inhabit Nickys for a few days due to *a wizard did it,* before Des is returned to Penric.

Second, for basically all of the books thus far, Penric has been the most dangerous person in the room. Not every story has to be about violence and fighting- indeed this series excels at telling stories were violence is rarely the answer. HOWEVER, due to the fact that Penric/Desdemona are so good at fighting, there is a lack of tension. If Pen ever gets in a rough spot, he can just use magic to escape it. Therefore the best books in this series are the books where you can’t just solve it with violent magic- like “Physicians of Vilnoc” or “Mira’s Last Dance.” The mere fact that Pen can solve a problem with violent magic does reduce the tension somewhat even in situations when he winds up not using violence. That includes this book and the ‘Shaman’ books.

The Knot of Shadows

This is another thoroughly competent Penric novel. One thing I enjoy about the Penric books are their (generally) low stakes. They involve high stakes, but only for one or two people. No ‘end of the world’ stakes to be seen. Due to these low stakes, we don’t have unbelievable power escalation seen in a LOT of other long running novels/series. I’ve read some reviews of this story/series which complain about how low stakes this series can be at times, but I think that this series is trying to do something different. This is a slice-of-life series, not Epic Fantasy.

When a zombie turns up in Vilnoc, Pen and Desdemona are called in to find out what’s going on. The solution to this problem brings back a storybeat first introduced in ‘The Curse of Chalion-‘ the trope of death magic/death miracles. Such a death curse uproots a soul by it’s roots, leaving a body open to possession by a ghost, making a zombie. The only catch is that this magic comes at a great cost: death magic can only be fueled by the sacrifice of the life of the person who invoked this dark miracle. So if there’s one zombie wandering around Vilnoc, there perforce must be another zombie walking around causing mischief. Pen and Des must find the other zombie before it gets into any trouble.

I enjoyed this book for it’s discussion of the theme of death, and how sad it was. This story had no tension; by the time of this story’s beginning, the deaths were already done. All that was left was to unravel the sad story behind them. This is a melancholic story about parenthood, and how no matter how hard you try you can’t always protect your children.

If I have a complaint, I wish we had more Desdemona in recent novellas. Mira’s antics in ‘Last Dance’ were fantastic.

Favorite to least favorite:

  • Mira’s Last Dance (5 Stars)
  • The Physicians of Vilnoc (4 Stars)
  • Masquerade at Lodi (4 Stars)
  • Orphans of Raspay (4 Stars)
  • Penric’s Mission (4 Stars)
  • The Knot of Shadows (4 Stars)
  • The Assassins of Thasalon (3 Stars)
  • Prisoner of Limnos (3 Stars)
  • Penric’s Demon (3 Stars)
  • Penric and the Shaman (3 Stars)
  • Penric’s Fox (3 Stars)

Three stars isn’t bad! I give three stars to good books all the time; I’m stingy with it comes to giving out stars. (What’s the point of having a system which uses 5 stars, if you don’t regularly give out scores of 1, 2, 3 and 4 stars?) While ‘Penric’s Fox’ is my least favorite of this series, I must say that I enjoyed it as a mystery story. It was a good book and I’ll happily read it again. I think the Penric/5 Gods novels are my favorite fantasy series, in terms of sheer readability.

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