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Demon Daughter  (Penric & Desdemona, volume 12)

By Lois McMaster Bujold 

23 Jan, 2024

Miscellaneous Reviews


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Demon Daughter is a secondary universe fantasy novel. Demon Daughter is the 12th volume in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric & Desdemona series.

Adorable moppet Otta has lived all her short life on her father’s trading vessel Golden Chance. Like many children, she would like a pet. Her misguided attempt to tame a ship’s rat provokes the First Mate to throw the beast overboard. The consequences are far beyond anything the First Mate could have imagined.

Learned Penric receives a letter requesting his assistance. A girl has been found washed up on shore. Ordinarily this would not demand a sorcerer’s attention, but the girl’s seemingly uncontrollable pyromancy does. For the moment, she has been confined in a dry well lacking flammable materials until such time as Penric can examine her.

The obvious explanation is that the girl, who readers may have correctly deduced is Otta, is (like Penric himself) possessed by a demon. Indeed, this is the case. The rat carried an infant demon, an elemental, and when the rat drowned, the demon jumped to the nearest living animal in range, which was Otta.

Otta is extremely fortunate to be possessed by a demon too young to have its own identity. Therefore, despite her own youth, she still controls her own body. However, neither Otta nor the demon — eventually named Atto — have any control over their magical abilities. Penric applies his sorcerous (and fatherly) skills to assist the girl to gain command of her new powers. In order to do so, he takes her into his household.

The training is a temporary stopgap; it does not answer the question of what to do with Otta and Atto.

Should Otta keep Atto? Keeping Atto means that Otta is a sorcerer and will have to be trained as one. She could not be returned to her family. If she even has a family — she set the Golden Chance aflame (disorientation, not malice) before she was thrown overboard. If her family is alive, they wouldn’t want her in any case. They are Roknari and Roknari kill sorcerers.

However, removing Atto will mean destroying Atto. Otta isn’t sure that she wants that. Nor are Penric’s family, who are increasingly fond of the little girl and her innocent demon. Nor is Penric’s demon Desdemona. But destroying Atto will allow Otta to return to her family.

What is in Otta and Atta’s best interests?


It is my impression that Bujold is semi-retired, despite which she has written twelve Penric volumes in less than a decade.

Bujold appears to have abandoned her early practice of leaving the adventures to childless youths, which as you know is why the focus in the Vorkosigan books shifted from Cordelia to her son Miles. Penric and Nikys are happily married with two surviving children and have been for some volumes. Nevertheless, they still get drawn into fraught situations. I am fine with development, having long believed even people who like myself might soon enter early middle age are able to make positive contributions to society. Or at least interesting contributions.

Among the inspirations of the Five Gods universe was Reconquista Era Spain. This means the setting has a built-in theological dispute that vexes me every time I encounter it: the doctrinal dispute between the Roknari, who believe there are four gods and a being of pure eeeeeevil, and Penric’s people, who believe there are five gods. In a world where gods actively interfere (and thus can be made the subjects of rational experimentation), how is this sort of doctrinal division possible?

Despite being set in a universe with bitter religious divisions and Machiavellian politics that frequently employ maiming and murder, this is a relentlessly amiable novel. Yes, the plot suggests some horrific possibilities: Otta’s mother might be an oppressed sex slave; Otta might have accidentally killed her family and friends; Otta’s family might prefer Otta dead; Atta might have to be killed for the greater good. Matters might go in a very dark direction.

That’s not the story Bujold wants to tell, which is very fortunate for Otta and Atto. The possibility of ugly outcomes is raised so that the characters can ingeniously avoid them. Such a plot probably would not work at greater length, so it is for the best this is a novella. Which, I might remind you, is about as long as perfectly acceptable novels were back in the day.

Demon Daughter is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Kobo). As seems increasingly common, I did not find it at troubled Chapters-Indigo.