Review: Lois McMaster Bujold's Penric & Desdemona Novels
Early in the novel Penric's Demon, a gormless young man pauses on the way to his arranged wedding to help an old woman at the side of the road. Unfortunately, she is inhabited by a demon, which jumps to young Penric when she dies, bringing along the memories and personalities of everyone possessed previously... all women.
As if being possessed by a demon weren't bad enough, Penric must now contend with the curious attention of a dozen women—many of them elderly—watching and criticizing his every move.
It's not all bad news, though. Penric acquires the powers of his ancient demon, whom he names Desdemona, along with the inescapable company of the clique of dames residing between his ears. And if their advice ruins his morning self-embrace, it saves him embarrasment far more often, and provides short-cuts to the scholarship he needs in order to be a competant sorcerer.
This book borrowed from world-building Bujold had already done for the Chalion fantasy series, although it is set in a different time in that world. The second two books of the Chalion trilogy are echoed in Book Two of this series, Penric and the Shaman. "Shaman" is the animal-bolstered equivalent of the sorcerer, so Inglis is, to some extent, Penric's peer. I was intrigued to see a different fantasy construct, the were-wolf, incorporated into the "paladin of souls" concept in Penric's world.
You can read these novels in any order you like, but I find they work best read in numeric order, 1-5. Further paragraphs may contain spoilers, so if you haven't read any of them yet, please stop here!
Book 4, Penric's Mission, came out before Book 3, Penric's Fox, was available for Kindle, so I orginally read them out of order. The third novel's story rises naturally out of the second, though, since it concerns a demon who has jumped, not to a human, but to the nearest creature available, a fox. It is also the closest to a murder mystery I have read from Bujold's pen. Desdemona really comes into her powers here, lending all her various riders' knowledge to the task of rescuing the lost demon.
Mission, on the other hand, is about Penric rising to the use of his powers, coordinating everything he has learned with the sorcerer's abilities to rescue General Arisaydia and his sister from an oppressive government. There is almost an engineering quality to his use of Desdemona's powers. (This is nothing more than I would expect from Bujold; my first encounter with her work was Falling Free.)
Book 5 is the first that doesn't feature Penric in the title. Mira's Last Dance has one of his embedded personalities, a courtesan with a predatorial way of controlling men, take center stage in the effort to enroll General Arisaydia in Penric's sponsor's cause (the escape that began in Mission).
Not only does Penric's mission continue in Book 5, but his developing relationship with the sister does also. The convoluted way in which his female inhabitants inhibit this blossoming romance is a delight to read, conflict being the principal driver of good fiction! Throughout the series, in fact, I was reminded of the conflicts between Johann Smith, Eunice Branca and Jake Saloman (all residing in Eunice's head) in Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil.