Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona is a series of 9 novellas set about 200 years before the events of The Curse of Chalion (my review here) in her World of the Five Gods. It follows young Lord Penric kin Jurald, who accidentally acquires a demon who he names Desdemona, and because he shares his body with a demon he has the ability to perform chaos magic. Over the course of 9 novellas, Penric goes from a 19-year-old baby sorcerer trying to navigate his new powers to a full-fledged sorcerer, learned member of the Bastard’s Order, and reluctant healer.
Bujold plays to her strengths in this series by creating extremely enjoyable characters and very twisty political and philosophical plots. Penric reminded me a lot of Miles from her Vorkosigan saga, in that he is very knowledgeable, ready with a quip, and prone to rambly, almost manic behavior. What makes Penric unique is the addition of the 200-year-old demon who shares his body and who keeps him more down to earth. Despite being a chaos demon, Desdemona has a more practical, calming influence of Penric.
Desdemona herself is an interesting character to look at. Demons in this world start as an Elemental and attach themselves to a host. When that host dies, the demon will jump to the nearest viable living being. Desdemona in particular has possessed 12 hosts previous to Penric — 10 women, a mare, and a lioness. This give Desdemona a more “female” feeling, despite demons being genderless. Early on in the series, Penric describes it as being like having 10 older sisters living in his head.
I have read the original trilogy in the World of the Five Gods, and you get a good idea of the world from them, but Penric and Desdemona delves much more deeply into the Quintarian religion the underpins this world, and since Penric travels quite a bit in his office as Learned Sorcerer we see a much wider range of the world as a whole. When I was reading The Curse of Chalion, I did not realize how much wider this world was. It focused mainly on Chalion, Ibra, and Darthaca. While reading this series of novellas, it opened up the world beyond that small peninsula. The Weald was introduced in The Hallowed Hunt, but it is fully fleshed out in Penric and Desdemona, and more countries are introduced as Penric moves around.
I liked how Bujold digs deeper into the workings of the Bastard’s Order and a little into the Mother’s Order as Penric learns about his sorcerer’s powers and how it can aid in healing. Penric’s struggles with his inability to save every patient and his ultimate reluctance to even use his healing powers added a depth to him that made for a much more well-rounded character. There is off-page mention of a suicide attempt, but nothing too detailed and it happens in-between books.
I listened to this series on audio, and it was extremely entertaining. I definitely recommend listening to this series if you have access to the audiobooks (most of the series is on Hoopla if your library has it).
Overall, this series is very fun with a great balance of humor, mystery, and romance. If I had to rate this series, I would give it 4.5 stars.