Novella Reviews: Penric’s Demon + Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review copies were provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

penrics-demonPenric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: World of the Five Gods novella

Publisher: Subterranean Press (May 2016)

Length: 184 pages

Author Information: Website

It’s always a pleasure to return to Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, which is also the setting of her books like The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls—two of my favorite novels of all time. There’s just so much to love about this world, not least of all the phenomenal world-building featuring some of the richest lore and history I’ve ever encountered in the fantasy genre. One thing of note is the major role that religion plays in this universe. Fate and free will are often recurring themes in the stories set in this world, as well as the question of divine intervention.

The novella Penric’s Demon is a good example of this, following the misadventures of a hapless mortal caught up in the drama of the gods. Lord Penric, our protagonist, is on his way to his own wedding when he suddenly chances upon a halted traveling party on the road. An elderly woman had fallen ill, and like good citizen, Penric decides to lend a hand.

Turns out though, the woman is a Temple divine pledged to The Bastard, one of the five gods in the Quintarian theology, the others being the Mother of Summer, Father of Winter, Son of Autumn, and the Daughter of Spring. As you can imagine, The Bastard is often regarded as the odd one out; His is the domain of all disasters out of season, and though his presence is accepted as a requirement for balance, in some religions he’s even considered to be a demon.

And speaking of demons, the old lady also ends up being a Learned Sorceress—one of those rare individuals who carry within them a sentient spirit with the ability to grant their hosts special powers. These spirits are referred to as “demons” despite them not being inherently evil, though sometimes they can be mischievous and hard to control. The divine ultimately succumbs to her illness and dies in Penric’s arms, but not before bequeathing him her demon, an act that changes the young lord’s life forever.

I admit, my feelings can be real fickle when it comes to novellas. I often find myself disappointed with them because I feel the short format is too limiting, and not enough time is given to the development of the story or characters. However, this one was an absolute pleasure to read. Bujold is a master when it comes to characterization and world-building, and these duo strengths really made this book stand out.

Not only does it offer a closer look at the lore of this world, I also greatly enjoyed the interplay between Penric and Desdemona, the name he decides to give to his new demon. Penric himself is a fantastic protagonist, a kind-hearted and considerate man who realizes he has been given a sacred gift. He also knows he is lucky not to have been destroyed by the entity now riding in his body, because not everyone has what it takes to host a demon. Despite being in way over his head, Penric still tries to do the right thing, striving to learn how to control his powers. His status as an outsider also gives him a unique point of view. For example, even after being with almost two dozen hosts, Desdemona remarks how not a single one of them had thought to give her a name until Penric came along. Their early days together are a source of constant humor and unexpected surprises. The story completely sucked me in, and the ending left me smiling and feeling excited for the next adventure.


penric-and-the-shamanPenric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: World of the Five Gods novella

Publisher: Subterranean Press (February 2017)

Length: 200 pages

Author Information: Website

Penric and the Shaman is another bite-sized adventure starring Lord Penric and Desdemona, though four years have passed since that fateful day the two “met” on the road. Our eponymous protagonist has become a full-fledged sorcerer and a divine of the Bastard’s Order, having earned his braids. Now working in the court of the Princess-Archdivine, Penric is content with as a temple scholar spending his days poring over books and scrolls.

However, the peace is broken one day when a Locator of the Father’s Order named Oswyl shows up, hot on the trail of a murder suspect. The wanted man is also purported to be a shaman who has stolen the soul of his slain victim, preventing the dead man’s ghost from being claimed by one of the five gods. After appealing to the Princess-Archdivine for the services of a sorcerer, Oswyl gets assigned Penric, and together with a small group of guards they travel into the mountains in search of the fugitive.

As we soon discover though, nothing is as it seems. This book is told from the points-of-view of three characters: Penric, Oswyl, and Inglis. This last perspective is from the titular shaman himself, the alleged murderer who actually turns out to be a lot more than he appears. When we first meet him early on in the story, his desperation feels different from what you would expect from a truly guilty man.

The three threads here provide a larger picture than what we got from the first novella, which mainly focused on the developing relationship between Penric and Desdemona. This does mean the demon has a smaller role, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly disappointed by her diminished presence. As usual though, Bujold’s characters are her forte, and this book is stronger because of the fascinating dynamics resulting from the increased number of POVs. Penric’s cheeriness, for example, was nicely juxtaposed by Oswyl’s dour and mirthless demeanor. Pen can’t help being the happy-go-lucky nice guy that he is, and half the fun was watching how easily he could push the Locator’s buttons.

Even more groundbreaking were the revelations presented here about shamans and sorcerers, implying strongly that Inglis’ powers may be the flip side of the same coin to Penric’s. We’re also reminded that Penric is more than just a sorcerer; he’s also a divine, and now he’s about to go up against a challenge that will take all his learned skills and abilities. As a sequel, Penric and the Shaman does a first-rate job growing our protagonist and expanding upon his unique role.

Bottom line, this series is a must-read for fans of Bujold’s fantasy, and the best part is, you can even read these two books by themselves, completely separate from the Chalion series. If you’re curious about the World of the Five Gods, this could also be a fine place to start. These charming little novellas feature everything I love about the author’s writing, and don’t underestimate their short length because these compact tales can still pack a lot of punch.


Mogsy 2

21 Comments on “Novella Reviews: Penric’s Demon + Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold”

    • Absolutely! I would also highly recommend her book Curse of Chalion. If you’re more into sci-fi though, Bujold is also the author of the very popular Vorkosigan series.


    • It’s been quite a while since I read her too, since I’m not as big a fan of her sci-fi so I haven’t been reading her recent Vorkosigan saga releases. Great returning to this world again.


  1. Much as I love Bujold’s Vor saga, I could not get into her fantasy books and abandoned Curse of Chalion at roughly one third of the way: maybe I was expecting the same kind of pace I encountered in her SF writing, and that’s the origin of my… well, not disappointment but rather lack of interest. Now, however, I want to give her FY works another chance, and these novellas might be just the perfect way to do it.
    Thanks for sharing!


    • That’s funny since I’m the opposite! I’ve only read a couple of her books in the Vor saga, and they were enjoyable, but I much prefer Bujold’s fantasy. I think if you want to give her fantasy another shot, novellas are the perfect way to do it!


  2. I’m guilty of not reading anything by this author although I do know I bought something to try out – can’t remember which book though – I’ll have to go and find it amongst my tbr piles! I also have mixed feelings about novellas although maybe they could be a good way to check out this author?
    Lynn 😀


    • Novellas are great to get a taste, but I think if you are not that into the shorter format, I would go straight to her full length novels. Like, The Curse of Chalion – can’t recommend it enough!


  3. I’ve never read anything by Bujold, which seems to be a gaping hole in my reading. I do love trying out new to me authors by reading a novella though. I might give Penric’s Demon a shot. I’m glad to hear that there’s a sequel novella to it too since if I like it, I know I’ll be looking for more.


    • I love Bujold! Yes, novellas are a good introduction, but as I’ve mentioned in previous comments, I can’t recommend her Curse of Chalion enough! Also amazing is Paladin of Souls, which is the follow up but it can be read as a stand alone.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ooh, I’m a sucker for books with colorful religions. How am I ever supposed to fit all these great books you review onto my tbr? XD Thanks again for highlighting two great reads!


    • Oh man, if you enjoy religion world-building in fantasy worlds, you would LOVE the World of the Five Gods. In a lot of discussions about favorite fantasy world religions, this series by Bujold inevitably always gets mentioned 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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