2021’s The Assassins of Thasalon is the tenth installment in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona secondary-universe fantasy series. It is set in her Five Gods Universe.
Eight months ago, the Emperor of Cedonia died of what appeared to be (and may have been!) a simple accident. The emperor’s son being a minor, a regency council was established, including in its number of the most determined power-grabbers in the Empire. Since then, a number of the council members have died, in battle and of what appeared to be natural causes. The stability of the court has been upended. For men like Minister Methani, the current circumstances are an opportunity.
Methani is well aware others may also see opportunity in imperial chaos. Thus, he dispatches two subordinates to deliver a message to the exiled General Adelis Arisaydia, who could be tempted home to command a military faction in the impending struggle. That message is “please drop dead,” expressed as several sincere assassination attempts.
Inconveniently for Methani, Adelis has a sorcerer brother-in-law. Penric shares his mind with the demon Desdemona and can harness her magical abilities. One of Methani’s assassins, a woman, tries to kill Adelis in the presence of Penric. Penric foils her; she flees.
Shockingly, the means by which the killer tried to murder Adelis was demon-magic. Any adept knows while this is possible, it comes with a terrible price for the demon, who dies after being used in this fashion. The homicidal adept no longer has any magical powers … at least until they can acquire another demon. However, demon-caused death has one advantage: it can appear to be due to natural causes.
Penric wants to know more: who sent the assassin? What aim was the assassination meant to serve? The assassin may be able to answer the questions. Penric lures the killer, a woman named Alixtra, into a trap. She is captured and questioned. It turns out that this is not her first venture into assassination. Methani has used her before.
He keeps her in line by assuring her that all of the people she kills are bad people, working against her country, Cedonia. And if that were not enough, he has seized her young son and will hurt him if she doesn’t follow orders.
Mundane, non-magical assassination is not uncommon in Cedonia. This attempt is different. Methani must be in league with a corrupt sorcerer, who must be the source of the demons sent into Alixtra. Penric, as a law-abiding religious functionary, cannot ignore this fact. The evil sorcerer is unworthy of his power and must have his demon removed. Penric is duty-bound to arrange this.
He doesn’t want to leave his pleasant home or his beloved wife and child. He doesn’t want to go near Cedonia again. But into the snake pit that is the imperial court he must go.
Sorcerers do not appear to be able to strip other sorcerers of their demons. Instead, specialists known as saints do the job (as described in another Bujold work, Paladin of Souls). Penric arranges for a saint to visit Alixtra and remove her demon. The saint cannot; the god who rules demons, the Bastard, won’t allow her demon to be banished. He must have some useful role in mind for Alixtra as sorceress. (As does the author, Bujold.) Add another character to the series cast.
The book hovers on becoming a murder mystery of the crime-solving clergy sort. Except there’s only fleeting doubt about whodunnit; the plot hinges on taking out the killers.
While the theology that Bujold has invented doesn’t mandate that bad people will come to bad ends while nice people are rewarded — the gods aren’t all that concerned with the fates of specific individuals — the author certainly leans that way. Kindness is rewarded, sympathetic characters (and there are sympathetic characters, unlike some grimdark fantasies I could mention) come through challenges to happiness, and bad people, even bad people who think everything they did was justifiable, are granted appropriate fates. It’s all very comforting.
Although set in a fantasy world whose governments run well short of modern-style civic virtues (more or less feudal in some regions, literally Byzantine in others, with the occasional religious war1 for flavour), the story is a rather amiable one. Not a surprise if one has read previous Penric stories but for those of you who have not, who might be tiring of endless grimdark, this may be a pleasant change of pace. Readers familiar with the series will find exactly what they expect.
Readers new to Bujold might hesitate to jump into the series ten books in. Although this book follows on events in previous volumes, Bujold provides sufficient backstory for the installment to stand on its own.
1: Yeah, I don’t know how in a world with living, somewhat interventionist gods one gets significant doctrinal drift but the people of this world have managed it.