2019’s The Orphans of Raspay is the seventh entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric & Desdemona series of novellas.
The merchant ship on which Penric is sailing is captured by Carpagamon pirates. They don’t just take goods; they collect victims to be ransomed or sold as slaves. Penric passes himself off as a temple scribe. A scribe might rate a ransom; a temple sorcerer might be thrown overboard by superstitious sailors.
Even for a sorcerer, escaping from the pirates’ island stronghold would be challenging. When that sorcerer finds himself helping a pair of luckless orphans, it becomes even more difficult.
Following the death of their mother, young Lencia and Seuka Corva set out in the company of a servant to join their merchant father (whose wife is utterly unaware that Lencia and Seuka’s mother existed, let alone that she bore children to the erring husband). Abandoned by the servant to continue on their own, the pair have been captured by the pirates. They would be worth a pretty penny as slaves. Not a pleasant fate, but so far their sales value has protected them from pirate abuse.
If Penric tries to rescue the two girls as well as himself, a challenging task becomes even more so. Still, if Penric does not help Lencia and Seuka, nobody will. Penric is far too kind-hearted to leave the girls to whatever grim fates await them.
The young sorcerer must escape an island populated by vicious pirates and their (sometimes unwilling) allies. He must somehow commandeer a ship and crew. For a normal man with two children in tow, this would be an insurmountable problem.
But Penric is a sorcerer.
This review is thematically appropriate for a week in which I profiled Westlake’s Dortmunder because a lot of the book involves perfectly solid plans getting up-ended thanks to factors beyond Penric’s control: orphans, arrival of yet more pirates, unreliable allies, and simple bad luck.
On the other hand, the pirates’ plans are up-ended as well. Their business model breaks down when their latest prisoner is a man who can sever nerves, sink boats, and ignite buildings with a hard stare1.
The world of the Five Gods is a grim one, filled with sudden death, religious strife, slavery, and the like. It would be easy to write a grimdark fantasy in this setting. Bujold does not. Penric’s adventure is treated as a comedy. We know that he’s going to escape (this is a series, after all). The only question is how. The how is both enthralling and funny.
1: The pirate business model does have one serious inherent flaw. Ransoming prisoners requires steering a careful path between capturing people whom others will pay to get back and capturing people whom others will value so highly that they raise an expeditionary force and invade the island. Consider the story of Julius Caesar and the pirates. The pirates can have no idea beforehand just what sort of captive they’ll snag.