Knot of Shadows is the eleventh volume in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series, which takes place in her Five Gods secondary fantasy universe.
Drownings are not rare in Vilnoc, a port. Drowned men who stand up and try to escape the morgue, on the other hand, are unusual. Clearly the ambulatory corpse is a matter for a sorcerer. Physician Tolga asks Penric and his demon Desdemona to help.
The walking dead man is an example of a phenomenon Penric has heard of but never encountered before now. Some desperate person has used death magic to strike down their enemy, sacrificing their own life to power the spell. That is rare enough. However, a wandering spirit appropriated the empty shell left behind by the target of the spell.
This is not a second chance at life for the spirit. The body it inhabits is still dead and still rotting. Furthermore, the energy to make the body mobile comes from the ghost. A sundered spirit has a raw deal in this universe, but becoming a walking revenant is even worse.
Penric’s course of action seems clear. Determine the dead man’s identity. From there, work out who could have hated him enough to give up their own life to strike him down. Locate the killer’s body and ensure both corpses are laid to rest.
By the time Penric and Desdemona have their answers, the killer’s corpse has its own uninvited spectral guest. Dealing with that complication requires solving a missing person case and confirming a parent’s worst fears.
Death magic seems easy enough to reinvent from scratch. The two main reasons it is not more common is that casting it is suicide and that the authorities do their best to keep its existence obscure. Given that this world is patterned on ours, one wonders what will happen once the Five Gods version of Guttenberg makes it possible to mass produce grimoires. (As my editor reminds me, Penric himself is busily advancing printing technology. Perhaps his techniques will do for magical security what Guttenberg did for theological unity.)
This is a cozy addition to the series. Matters of state are not at stake and by the time Penric and Desdemona enter the story, all the dramatic moments are in the past. Their task is to unravel what happened, why it happened, and do their best to resolve matters as well as tragedies can be resolved. The plot is more methodical than tense.
The novella is also surprisingly short. If you are having trouble maintaining focus, this puff-pastry of a whodunit may be just what you need.