Saturday, 4 November 2017

Penric's Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold is the third Penric novella that I’ve read, after Penric's Demon and Penric and the Shaman. I haven’t read any of the novels set in the same world. I mistakenly thought Penric’s Mission was chronologically third in the Penric series and then was very confused when it was set about ten years after the previous Penric novella I’d read. Turns out it was the third to be published, not the third chronologically. Whoops! Bujold’s non-chronological writing strikes again!

Learned Penric, a sorcerer and divine of the Bastard’s Order, travels across the sea to sunlit Cedonia on his first covert diplomatic mission, to attempt to secure the services of a disaffected Cedonian general for the Duke of Adria. However, nothing is as it seems: Penric is betrayed and thrown into a dungeon, and worse follows for the general and his kin. Penric’s narrow escapes and adventures — including his interest in a young widow — are told with Bujold’s remarkable energy, wit and humor. Once again, Bujold has created unforgettable characters and a wondrous, often dangerous world of intrigue and sorcery. Third novella in the Penric and Desdemona series.

Aside from my confusion as to what number book I was reading, I mostly enjoyed Penric’s Mission. I didn’t love it, though, and it’s probably my least favourite Penric book so far. It felt like it was bridging two parts of Penric’s life, but without much knowledge of the earlier part, I suspect some of the significance was lost on me. Last time I encountered Penric, he was still new. Now, ten years later, not only does he better know what he’s doing, but he’s coming from a bunch of history unfamiliar to me. We get some reminiscences which do explain how Penric got to where he was at the start of the story, but they come later in the story. I felt like more context at the start would have been helpful (and maybe would have existed if I read a chronologically earlier book first).

Penric’s Mission follows Penric while he’s been instructed to recruit a general who had been corresponding with the duke Penric is currently working for. But as soon as Penric arrives in the city, he’s arrested and, it turns out, the general has been arrested too. The questions of who betrayed Penric and why are less pressing than his immediate survival. By the time we find out the answers, they don’t seem that relevant anymore. I didn’t feel there was a very satisfying answer to “why is any of this happening?” especially since we learned Penric’s motivations so late in the story.

None of which is to say I didn’t enjoy the book, just that it could have been more enjoyable. I still fully intend to keep reading Penric stories and I especially hope we can fill in some more of the ten years that got skipped between this novella and the last.

I actually don’t think this novella is a terrible place to start reading Penric, for all that I said above. A new reader coming to it wouldn’t have much less information than I did and is likely to be less frustrated by time jumps they know nothing about. The story does not rely on any prior knowledge to work as a stand-alone. The only reason I’d particularly suggest starting with the earlier books is because I liked them more, but otherwise I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending Penric’s Mission to fans of fantasy who are looking for a shorter read.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, self-published (my edition: November 2017, Subterranean Press)
Series: Penric and Desdemona, #3 in publication order of 6ish so far
Format read: eARC (PDF)
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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