Fantasy Novella Review: Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold was one of the first authors I read when I got back in genre fiction as a grad student, and I’ve liked her work enough that I’ve come pretty close to reading all of it. But one gap on my list has been her Penric and Desdemona novella series within the World of the Five Gods universe that I’d enjoyed so much in The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls. With Angels and Demons on the Bingo board this year, it was time to amend that by giving Penric’s Demon a read. 

Penric’s Demon follows a younger son within a minor noble house that’s fallen on financial difficulty. But an accident on the way to a ceremony to cement his betrothal to the daughter of a successful cheesemonger leaves him demon-possessed, no longer an eligible suitor, and possibly with his life at risk. 

Penric’s Demon is a very short and very easy read. It’s a classic fantasy adventure with a likable hero surrounded by more than his fair share of danger. There’s perilous and unfamiliar magic, a society that sees him as a threat, and perhaps a betrayal or two for good measure—the perfect palate-cleanser between heavier series. 

But I’m not sure that it’s much more than a palate-cleanser. Like everything Bujold writes, it’s a breeze to read and a whole lot of fun. But the novella form doesn’t provide the space to really invest in Penric as a character, and he doesn’t have the voice to immediately draw the reader in the same way as a character like Murderbot. That said, this isn’t a standalone but the first entry in a longer series of novellas, and likable characters have a way of becoming even more compelling over the course of several books–in fact, The Murderbot Diaries are a great example of the phenomenon. Penric’s Demon is an entirely enjoyable first entry that sets the stage for a series that may well be more than the sum of its parts. Certainly, it seems poised to become a real comfort read. 

But I can’t say that I understand it being a finalist for the Hugo and Locus Awards. I understand the author has name recognition and that the novella landscape was a bit different in 2015 than it is now. But this feels like a fun read and not an enduring triumph of storytelling. And “The Bone Swans of Amandale” was right there. But there’s certainly something to be said for quick, easy reads, especially kicking off a whole series of such adventures. Perhaps it won’t be this year, but I imagine I’ll be back for more. 

Recommended if you like: quick fantasy reads with endearing characters.

Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Novella and Self-Published. It also features Angels and Demons.

Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.

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