Friday, October 23, 2015

Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Penric, age 19, is accidentally possessed by a demon meant for someone else. Demons can be useful, but they are dangerous, and Penric has no idea what to do with one. (37,200 words; Time: 2h:04m)

Rating: ★★★★★ Award-Worthy

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Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: The story recounts Penric's courtship of the demon, Desdemona. It begins with their unorthodox betrothal and ends with their even more unorthodox wedding. Pen, en route to a betrothal to a girl he barely knows, ends up "betrothed" to a demon far, far older than he is. When he names Desdemona, he describes it as a "courting gift," and she accepts it as such. Pen is unwilling even to masturbate with her watching, which means he takes a vow of chastity during their courtship. Over subsequent scenes, as they get to know each other better, we watch the trust and affection between them grow. By the time Clee and his brother are trying to kill him, Pen reacts to the news that a demon jumps from a dying rider before he dies by mourning that he is to be unbetrothed twice before he dies--Desdemona has come to mean more to him than his own life. In the climactic scene, Pen looks the Bastard in the eyes and commits himself to her (and him) for life. He does this selflessly; only in the final paragraphs does he learn that this has caused her to commit herself to him absolutely. In the end, "Penric's Demon" celebrates a nontraditional love so strong that even the gods respect it.

Demons are notoriously deceitful, and when they gain control of their human hosts, they run amok, destroying body and soul. Only a strong, well-trained person can control one. Pen is neither of these, and Desdemona is very strong indeed. But a demon is weak for a while after the transfer, so everyone except Pen sees this as a race against time to find someone who can remove the demon before it recovers enough to take him over.

Pen is innocent, trusting, and filled with love (it's why we love him too). Desdemona seems to respond to this, but we really don't know if this is just a play to gain Pen's trust. At every page, we keep expecting her to betray him, and this adds a lot of tension to the story, almost to the very end. Only when Desdemona rejects Clee and his brother despite learning that Tigney has summoned the saint to destroy her do we know for sure that even if her affection for Pen was ever just a show, it is not any longer. This is confirmed when she agrees to take the risk of letting him return for his things. When Pen pleads her case before the Bastard, we know he's doing the right thing.

The gender roles in this relationship are amusing. Pen is the submissive one, for the most part, and he lets Desdemona guide him. She's the rough one, the one with unsavory experience, while he's the pure innocent. Yet he proves to be the strong one. The one who stands up to a god just for her. When she pledges him her absolute service, we're sure she means it, we're sure he's earned it, and we're sure he'll be worthy of it.

A thoroughly satisfying story.

Con: Penric is probably a little bit too nice, particularly considering the sort of world he lives in.

Even though the novella has reached a logical conclusion, the reader feels a little bit cheated, since it seems he is only starting his adventures.

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Lois McMaster Bujold Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB

1 comment (may contain spoilers):

  1. Great story, good analysis of the "marriage". Similar in ways to The Goblin Emperor, I enjoyed this story more and would definitely nominate it in its Hugo category. It leaves me wanting to read more stories about Penric and Desdemona.

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