Lois McMaster Bujold’s FIVE GODS novels — The Curse of Chalion (2001), The Paladin of Souls (2003), and The Hallowed Hunt (2005) — are some of the most beloved in fantasy literature. They won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards. That’s why her fans (of which I am definitely one) where so pleased when she began writing novellas set in the same world. These have different characters than the three novels (which each stand alone), so this is a good entry for new readers to Bujold’s world. However, unlike the novels, these novellas tell a progressing story, so you should read the first one, Penric’s Demon (2015), before starting Penric and the Shaman (2016). In that first story, we learned how Penric, a poor nobleman’s son, was accidentally possessed by a friendly demon. This gave him the opportunity to obtain the schooling which he had thought was financially out of his reach. He also acquired some sorcerous skills.
Penric and the Shaman is set four years later. Penric is now a “learned divine” (a scholar) of the Bastard’s Order and a physician. His demon, Desdemona, who is two hundred years old and has previously inhabited the bodies of several different women, had the knowledge and skills to get Penric through school quickly. They have a loving collaborative relationship that works well for both of them. Currently they are working as a scholar for the Princess-Archdivine. When a Locator comes to court to ask the Princess for help finding a rogue sorcerer who is wanted for murder, she lends him Penric’s services. The Locator and the Penric-Desdemona duo track the sorcerer to a remote mountain region where Penric attempts to solve a murder mystery as well as offer spiritual services.
Penric and the Shaman is merely 160 pages long in the print version (4.5 hours long in the audio version). The story is a short episode in Penric’s life, so don’t expect the clever, complex plotting and deep characterization that Bujold is known for. In this shorter work, the humor, which is one of my favorite things about Bujold’s writing, is not prominent either. I think that’s mostly because part of the story comes to us from other characters’ points of view — not just Penric’s. Bujold saves most of the humor for his POV and his sections of the story are delightful.
The story will be most interesting to readers who want to know more about the religious and political scene in the FIVE GODS world. We learn a lot more about the various gods, shamans, spirit animals, sundered souls, and ghosts in Penric and the Shaman. I can’t say that I care that much about these things, which is why I didn’t love Penric and the Shaman. But I do like Penric and Desdemona quite well and am eager to follow their story in the next episode, Penric’s Mission. (Spoiler alert: I liked that story a lot better than this one.)
Grover Gardner’s narration of Bujold’s books is wonderful. He completely understands her style and sense of humor. I will always choose to listen to Bujold in audio format for this reason. The audiobooks for this series are produced by Blackstone Audio.