2017’s Prisoner of Limnos is the sixth novella in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric & Desdemona series. It follows directly on the events of Mira’s Last Dance, which in turn followed directly on the events of Penric’s Mission.
The sorcerer Penric successfully smuggled General Adelis Arisaydia and the general’s half-sister Nikys out of Cedonia to Orbas. Events occurring during this smuggle have upset Nikys, with whom Penric is smitten. Then letters from his superiors arrive, demanding Penric return from his foreign adventures. Penric does what any reasonable person would do in his place: hare off on a side-quest.
Adelis and Nikys are beyond imperial reach. Not so Nikys’ mother, whose safety lay in the fact her connection to Adelis was unclear to anyone unfamiliar with the Arisaydia family; lowborn concubines are seldom of concern to the great lords of the empire. Adelis’ enemy Minister Methani must have discovered the connection, as Nikys’ mother has been detained and sent to isolation in the temple complex on the island of Limnos.
Although bothered by what she has learned about Penric in the previous novella, Nikys does have a lot of faith in Penric’s competence. Penric can, she is sure, circumvent the island’s defences and extract Nikys’ mother before Methani can apply more energetic measures. Penric is somewhat less convinced of his abilities, but he’s very fond of Nikys and disinclined to say no.
Armed with magic, a demon, and the memories of a dozen or so previous hosts of the demon … to which are added the assistance of Nikys, Adelis’ sweetheart Lady Tanar, Lady Tanar’s hypercompetent servant Master Bosha, and a surprise guest star to be revealed at a later date, Penric sets out to infiltrate Limnos.
Which, by the way, is inhabited only by women.
Many science fiction and fantasy works feature worlds where only a very small number of people ever do anything that matters, where all others are extras there to keep the stage from looking empty. No so in Penric’s world; Penric and Desdemona are only one (or two, depending on how you count them) of a large number of potential protagonist-level characters.
If you’ve ever wondered how many groups of competent people independently attempting a rescue it might take before they start getting in each other’s way, the answer turns out to be two. At most two. I believe it can be done with just one, but two is definitely a valid answer.
The adventure in this novella is fairly straightforward. The relationships between the characters, not so much. Bujold is generous in her depiction and acceptance of unconventional romantic arrangements:
a first wife and a concubine, who live together amicably even after the husband they share dies;
a loyal eunuch retainer and his mistress;
a triangle (Penric, Desdemona, and Nikys) that is eventually accepted by all three involved.
This is one of the safer Bujold series in which to be a romantic hypotenuse.
Although the three parts of Penric’s Excellent Cedonian Adventure were published independently over two years, I recommend reading them all in one go, as they form one complete narrative.