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Return to Chalion

Penric’s Demon  (Penric & Desdemona, volume 1)

By Lois McMaster Bujold 

17 Sep, 2015

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Bujold returns to the world of Curse of Chalion in the 2015 novella, Penric’s Demon.

Penric is a lesser son of impoverished bluebloods, a harmless fellow whose greatest value to his family is marital: he can score some much-needed dosh by marrying Prieta, the daughter of a wealthy cheese merchant. This is a pleasant enough prospect. Not only will the marriage restore a measure of financial stability to the House of Jurald, but Prieta is herself a charming armful, someone with whom Penric can easily see himself spending a happy life.

Alas, there will be no curvaceous cheese merchant’s daughter for Penric and no financial windfall for the House of Jurald — Penric is sabotaged by his own good nature.

It begins with a dying woman by the side of the road. 

Penric has no inkling that the Divine Ruchia is more an ailing old woman when he stops to render what aid he can. There is nothing he can do for Ruchia; her time on the mortal plane is up. However, there is a lot that Penric can do for the demon living within Ruchia. He can provide it with a new host after its current one dies.

Penric is now demon-ridden, which upends all previous plans. The marriage to Prieta is off. Penric is hustled off to the nearest Temple of the Bastard’s Order, where it will be decided whether he might qualify for interesting life as a sorcerer … or whether he might be headed for some less pleasant fate. If he is truly unlucky, he can look forward to life trapped in the shell of a body being used by something else.

Even if the young man and demon can come to terms, that may only be the beginning of Penric’s problems. His demon and the power it promises are precious. Penric may find himself a mortal pawn in someone else’s ambitious schemes.


This was very … amiable. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you’re looking for another The Mountains of Mourning, this isn’t that sort of story. Penric is a pleasant fellow who succeeds by the applied power of nice (and swimming, and a touch of demon-assisted hellfire). His transformation from groom-to-be to potential sorcerer is sudden and traumatic. It is also an unlooked-for opportunity that gives Penric access to study at the university and an interesting career. Goals that Bujold’s readers probably value. 

This is a world that has more than its share of violent death, plagues, and other calamities, but for the most part (the odd murder attempt aside) that kind of thing remains off-stage. Penric and his demon face life-and-death crises, but the reader senses that, as is often the case in fairy tales, the cunning boy and his demon will win out in the end. 

I was amused when I realized that Bujold took her plot from the familiar stories about plucky heroines forced to cohabit with great monstrous beasts or married off to unfamiliar grooms of uncertain character. The protagonists are dropped into situations where vigorously applied carnage is not half as useful as people skills. Gender flipping conventional narratives is a straight-forward, even conventional, technique, but it can be effective. (But I doubt that the gender-flipping will be enough to win Bujold a Tiptree nod.)

If you have missed the world of The Curse of Chalion or if you’re just looking for a pleasant diversion, consider Penric’s Demon.