Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Prisoner of Limnos, by Lois McMaster Bujold

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(Fantasy Adventure; Five Gods) When Nikys asks for Penric’s help rescuing her mother from an imperial prison, he jumps at the chance to win her affections back. It’s obviously a trap, and he doesn’t know anything about the place, but he does have a demon to help him. (44,652 words; Time: 2h:28m)

Rating: ★★★★★ Lively, Imaginative, and Touching

There isn’t enough backstory here to make it possible to begin the series with this novella. New readers could start with “Penric’s Mission,” although the most fun would be to start from the very beginning with “Penric’s Demon.”

"The Prisoner of Limnos," by , published on by .

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

Pro: Superficially, the story is about rescuing Idrene, and that level of the plot is a complete success—assuming the boat makes it to Orban successfully.

On a different level, it’s about Penric winning Nikys over, despite how strange his attachment to Desdemona makes him. Penric does this by giving everything he’s got to their rescue mission and leaving the outcome in the hands of his rather-capricious god. Notably, near the end, he uses his own shamanic powers to confuse the courier, saving the party and paying with his own blood. Arguably, this “blood sacrifice” is what finally wins the day for him.

People who didn’t read the previous novella, “Mira’s Last Dance,” may not understand what Nikys is so upset over. In that story Penric (with Desdemona’s help) impersonated a courtesan as part of a scheme to smuggle the three of them (Nikys, her brother, and Penric) out of the empire. This led to Penric having to perform oral sex on a male imperial officer. Rather than being upset afterwards, he just said, “Well, that was an experience,” and went on with the rest of their plan. That, more than anything else, convinced Nikys that Penric was too strange for her. (Note: the text is vague enough that there is room to argue that it wasn't oral--that he only used his hands. We can debate it in the comments, if anyone wants to.)

Nikys desire to rescue her mother is strong enough to overcome her aversion to him, and as the episode progresses, it’s clear that she’s still drawn to Penric. The turning point comes when the Daughter of Spring gives her her blessing, and Penric believes her when she tells him about it. From that point forward, Nikys is looking for reasons to justify renewing her relationship with Penric. The chat with her mom about it near the end merely gives her the excuses she’s been seeking. (Perhaps we're meant to believe the goddess touched her heart.)

Bosha has a somewhat different arc. He also wants the mission to succeed, but only in order to protect his patrons. Bosha is impressive for a variety of reasons; despite multiple handicaps, he’s a living demonstration that one can be formidable without having help from a demon.

Ikos has his own, independent, mission to rescue Idrene, and it’s the Bastard’s luck that has him rescuing Penric instead, since the imperial cruiser that intercepts them is seeking a woman, not a man. Ikos is a different example of a formidable man who doesn’t need a demon to let him do amazing things. It's amusing that although Penric and Desdemona find the trip down the cliff terrifying, Idrene herself is sorry to have missed it.

Desdemona herself is simply along to help Penric and do a little chaos here and there. She’s notable in this story for her weakness, not her strength, alternately cowering before a god (as she’s done before) and in fear of heights (as she’s also done before). But her promise to Nikys to be "anything you want me to be" if she'll marry Penric is deeply touching.

Con: This isn’t a stand-alone story because new readers won’t understand what Nikys is so upset about, not to mention that it directly depends on the material developed in "Penric's Mission" too.

The story doesn’t quite end in success, as they don’t make it back to Orban, and there’s that odd thought from Penric as to whether this sea voyage might prove as life-altering as the first.

Most of the Penric-focused chapters have little or no tension, owing to Desdemona’s overwhelming power. The invasion of the temple/prison (where no man should be) and the descent of the cliff are exceptions—the two places where Desdemona herself is afraid for one reason or another.

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4 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I'm not sure her issue was specifically the sexual activity, rather it was the evidence that Penric contains multiple identities that she doesn't necessarily know and that he is willing to let them out and embrace what they lead him to.
    I think you can see this issue in how she wants to talk to Des and make sure she won't interfere at intimate moments.

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    Replies
    1. My thinking is that she'd had plenty of time to realize that Desdemona was always inside Penric, and, yes, we knew it made her uncomfortable, but it was Mira's encounter with the general, and, more importantly, Penric's nonchalance about it that really put her off. "Would she be happier with him if he'd seemed more distraught? That at least would e a reaction she could understand."

      On the other hand, it's true that she later says, "She was beginning to realize he might be the least safe man she'd ever met . . . She wondered if her brother's stiffness toward him had its roots in well-stifled fear."

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    2. I'd say the Mira incident was what made it real - yes, she'd had it explained to her, and seen some elements of Des interfering, but Mira was the first time a personality really took primary place for an extended period.

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    3. I think that's the first time we the readers saw it too. In all the prior books, Desdemona was just a voice advising Pen. An ascendant demon was a scary thing, and this came close enough to the line to cause some tension--other than the fact that Penric's confidence was total.

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