Hear my whispers in the dark
Penric’s Mission (Penric and Desdemona, volume 4)
By Lois McMaster Bujold
Penric’s Mission is the fourth instalment in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series.
Following an ill-fated foray into medicine, demon-haunted, all-round-nice-guy Penric takes up a new occupation: covert agent for the Duke of Adria. As the novel opens, he is travelling into Cedonia, there to contact to recruit a Cedonian general who is believed to be disaffected.
No sooner does he step off the boat than Penric is arrested, beaten, and thrown into prison. Not an auspicious beginning, particularly since his cell is designed to fill with water once his captors have no further use for him. Eventually, they do not.
A death trap designed with a normal person in mind presents surprisingly little challenge for a man allied with the demon Desdemona. Once out, Penric makes a beeline for the man he was send to contact, fearing the worst. Given what the Cedonians were willing to do to Penric, what will they have done to General Arisaydia?
The news is not as bad as it could be, although it is not good. The General was arrested … but not quietly murdered while in custody. The bad guys merely blinded him, then released him into the care of his widowed sister Nikys. To the capable, active general, this may be a fate worse than death.
Arisaydia may no longer be a threat to the state of Cedonia, but that does not mean that his enemies will leave him and Nikys in peace. Penric intervenes, curing the blindness and offering the sibling pair a new life in Adria. Arisaydia and Nikys take Penric up on his offer, but the action has only just begun. The trio still face a gruelling journey over the mountains, with pursuers on their heels.
This time the General’s enemies have brought their own wizard.
Twelve years have passed since Penric’s Demon. Penric is about thirty. If he lives another thirty years (and I have to suspect that while Desdemona’s talent for healing Penric may improve his life expectancy, Penric’s adventures are not likely to prolong his life), then Bujold should be able to get another five or six novellas out of Penric and Desdemona’s life together 1. She’s publishing a new Penric every six months, so that will only take about three more years. Ah, well.
Penric is a doggedly nice guy in a world that does not place much value on being considerate of others. Cedonians gleefully conspire against each other 2, and wizards abuse the demons who grant them their powers. Penric thinks he has found a better way and is keen to share it. It’s an interesting contrast to the usual run of casually murderous SF protagonists. This is particularly noteworthy since the author is an American and American fiction often prefers the more dramatic fist-to-the-face approach.
If you’re looking for something light and upbeat, a small piece of life-affirming fiction, or just a story in which three fugitives flee through the countryside pursued by would-be killers, this may be for you.
Penric’s Mission is available here.
1: The Penric series reminds me weirdly of the John Grimes series. I have no idea why, although part of it may be the way both series track the protagonists’ lives.
2: Arisaydia does not seem to go in for obligate scheming, but the impression he gives of being comparatively harmless is misleading: he spends most of the story an invalid. His profession involves the skilful application of force; he does not hesitate to betray allies or kill enemies when it is a question of saving his (and his sister’s) life.