Saturday, July 25, 2015

Reading Notes: Penric's Demon

One of my oldest friends introduced me to the amazing Lois McMaster Bujold a couple of years ago now - the year that Captain Vorpatril's Alliance was nominated for the Hugo, from memory. I have since read my way voraciously through her science fiction Vor canon, as well as her fantasy works.

Of all of these, although I recognise the greatness of Vor (who doesn't?), I have to say my heart belongs to the world of the Five Gods, heretofore delivered via only three too-brief novels (The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt).

I have written before about what an achievement and a delight these books are, especially in Bujold's complex, thoughtful and nuanced treatment of religion, faith and free will in a world where the gods are opaque but active, and where the survival of human souls, which are claimed by the gods at death, is more certain, although still not assured.

The characters in these books are, even by Bujold's considerable standards, exceptional - some of the deepest, best-rounded of all her people. (Well ... excepting Miles Vorkosigan, of course. But then, there is only one Miles). In particular, the Lady Ista, heroine of Paladin of Souls, is one of the best-developed women I have ever read - a 40-year-old widow who is given a full, rich plot arc, the complete range of human capacity and emotion, and a (somewhat) happy ending. It's sufficiently unusual in fantasy for women with adult children to be written as key actors, let alone objects of passion rather than merely affection, that this stood out to me. (Yes, I know there are such characters in Game of Thrones, but I don't read those, so bear with me. It is still unusual, anyway).

So it has always been something of a disappointment to me that the Five Gods canon was so brief. There were so many themes and areas of interest introduced that never had an adequate chance for development, and I've been hankering after more ever since I finished The Hallowed Hunt.

Penric's Demon, which is a perfectly balanced, wonderfully engaging, warm and gentle novella, has proved an eminently satisfactory sop to this particular hunger. (A sop, mind - it's not enough, more novels are required please Ms Bujold!)

In this short book, Bujold builds on an under-explored area in the three novels - sorcery, which in the Five Gods universe, means possession by a demon. This isn't nearly as horrific as it sounds; like everything in Bujold, it can be disturbing, off-key and dangerous, but the converse is that it can also be a source of not just power, but also regeneration, balance, and self-knowledge. Demons, the chaos-spirits belonging to the fifth god (the best of all the five, the Bastard), inhabit humans, but they don't possess them in the classical sense. Rather, they form a somewhat uneasy symbiosis with their human host - if the host understands how to control and use the demon, that is.

In previous Five God stories, the subject of demons has frequently arisen, but never from an intimate perspective. Penric, the protagonist of this tale, changes all that. A hapless minor lord on his way to a financially advantageous betrothal, Penric encounters a dying woman on the road; a woman, as luck would have it, who possesses a valuable, powerful demon. In her dying, she passes the demon on to Penric ... and this is the whole meat of the story.

Penric himself is an extremely likeable character; thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent, and kind. It is these qualities that give him the interest in, and the will to, seek to understand not just his demon's powers, but her essence. (The demon, who has previously inhabited 12 women in sequence, is most decidedly female). Pen learns more about what his demon is, and how she experiences the world, than all the learned divines and their esoteric knowledge. And it all begins when he bestows upon her a name - Desdemona.

This is a really warming, lovely story - entirely positive and upbeat in its affect, and that is not something often said about demon possession tales. It's probably not the ideal entry point into the Five Gods world - I think those who have read the novels will get much more out of it, and enjoy it more, than "cold" readers. Still, background or not, I think it would be hard not to be charmed by this gem of a novella.

No comments:

Post a Comment