Lois McMaster Bujold’s 2020 The Physicians of Vilnoc is the eighth installment in the Penric & Desdemona series.
Penric has finally settled down. The sorcerer has a wife (Nikys), a child (Florina), a home, and no reason to go haring off on dangerous missions.
One day, a dangerous mission comes to Penric.
Penric’s brother in law General Arisaydia has a problem he hopes Penric can solve. A mysterious new malady has broken out in the general’s fort. The disease is hitherto unknown, it is spreading, and it is quite lethal.
As a side-effect of sharing his body with a demon, Penric has access to the memories of the demon’s previous hosts, a number of whom have medical backgrounds. As well, magic can be used to heal people (or at least mitigate the effects of disease), albeit not easily and at a cost. Penric can hardly say no.
By the time the pair arrive at Arisaydia’s fort, the Legion’s senior physician Master Orides is dead, just one of many who have succumbed to the malady. It’s a pity, because Orides’ experience treating the disease would have been very handy.
Penric does his best, using magic and his medical skills to treat the fort’s soldiers. Although it is difficult for the overworked sorcerer to appreciate the fact from the front lines, his efforts do have a measurable effect. The survival rate is by no means one hundred percent, but it is higher than it would have been without him. Indeed, the sorcerer appears to be winning the battle against the epidemic.
Except that Penric and his colleagues do not truly understand the nature of the disease or how it spreads. Their momentary victory may be a short-lived respite before the disease sweeps across the region.
The issue with magical healing is a thermodynamic one: fixing stuff is harder than breaking it, and unless the sorcerer is careful, all the entropy they are removing from an ailing body will afflict the sorcerer in any number of unpleasant ways, such as stroke or cancer.
Like a many medical stories, this novella is a mystery. Rather than attempt some Zap Brannigan-esque herd immunity strategy— let the disease spread as it will and hope that the fraction of the population who will die is something short of one hundred percent — Penric and his allies need to find out how the disease is spreading. A flea-born disease, for example, calls for different countermeasures than a droplet-born one.
Some readers may find it odd that faced with a deadly epidemic, General Arisaydia combats it with constructive, well-thought-out strategies. He doesn’t accuse a nearby camp of foreign prisoners as the cause of the disease; he doesn’t suggest, as he might, that the disease might be cured by the injection of high-pressure steam. None of Arisaydia’s soldiers refuse his sanitary and medical measures. There are aspects of this story that aren’t magic, but are still fantastical.
This is a tight, competent little tale, one that doesn’t up-end Penric’s happy domesticity but still allows him a measure of adventure and mystery. It’s also apropos to the moment, whether by plan or happenstance. A pleasant interlude in an unhappy time.