“Penric and the Shaman” is a fantasy novella by Lois McMaster Bujold. As longer term readers know, I enjoy Bujold’s sci-fi “Vorkosigan Saga” series immensely, so came to this novella as a means of experimenting with her sojourn into fantasy; not many writers seem to work in both genres, and fewer do so successfully.
Penric and the Shaman, fortunately, is rather good.
The world of the novella is an interesting one; there’s hints of a monarchical style system of rule, and suggestions scattered through which suggest a feudal fealty style arrangement between lords and labourers. But whilst there’s a little time spent in urban environments, the majority is out in the countryside – well, mostly, the mountainside. The focal point is a village almost buried in a mountain range, where it seems the chief industries are hunting, fishing, and getting up to inconveniently unorthodox magic. But the crisp air of the peaks pours off the page, and the sense of a close community, tied by isolation, has a warmth all of its own which shines through here.
On the point of magic – there’s a fair bit of this floating around. For those of you with a penchant for magic systems – well, it seems that this is a world where individuals are still trying to find own exactly how otherworldly effects can be generated. So there’s some systematising, but mostly, the reader is at least as much in the dark as the characters. There’s the Shaman of the title – heir to a tradition which seems to involve bonding with animals, ritual focus and astral projection – amongst other things. Then there’s the demons – which seem to be creatures with a nature of destruction, which pass from host to host, occasionally set things on fire, and also have something of a talent for sarcasm. There’s a melange of styles here, but they’ve been wrapped in cultural signifiers, and they’re separated enough to keep them clear to the reader – and the descriptions of the Shamanic magic are particularly well done, drawing the reader out into the astral alongside the practicioner.
The characters – well, I suppose the protagonist is the Penric of the title, though he shares equal time with a church investigator and a shaman. Penric is smooth, with an ineffable charm. He’s got a layer of class around him, a sense of style which the narrative slides over, letting it shine through at odd moments. He’s clever, evidenced by his investigative skills, and seems to do well at interpersonal interaction. One of the small joys is listening to the conversations he has with his demon, Desdemona – an inner dialogue which is equal parts smart-arse, intellectual debate, and mentoring. Though who exactly is teaching whom seems to vary. In any event, Penric is a vital, funny, fascinating figure – and one whom I’d like to see more of.
He’s followed by the investigator for the church – a dogged man, in search of a murder suspect. This is an individual with a nose for the truth, which also isn’t especially clogged with dogmatism. As a mid-level functionary, with some arms training and an inquiring mind, I found he worked well as a conduit for my interests – spending much of the book either trying to wok out what exactly was going on, or why he was following Penric around at all. Between moments of brusque competence, however, there are a few searing lines of discussion between them, revealing a man of dedication, unwilling to let the innocent suffer the consequences of crime, and aware fo the extremes to which terrified people may go.
The Shaman, the last of the triad, is something else entirely. I won’t get into his role now, for fear of spoilers. But this is an individual living in his own torments. There’s a personal, moral conflict here, and the depths of the soul are excavated in the narrative – to great effect, I might add.
The plot – well, it’s a murder mystery, and a chase, and a personal journey, all in one. The dialogue absolutely crackles with energy, and if there’s not much in the way of fast-paced swordfights, there’s a lot of sparring with words – and a fair bit of spectacular thaumaturgy. Watching Penric and his investigator dig into the circumstances of a murder, trying to piece together what happened and why, and then chase down the putative culprit, is compelling and tense reading – as are the revelations in what follows.
Is it worth reading? Well, I certainly enjoyed it. It’s a story about people in the main, about what drives them, what keeps them together, about what they’ll sacrifice, and about what drives people to commit small atrocities or acts of heroism. This isn’t a narrative about the grand sweep of armies – but it’s charming, and has a penetrative insight which makes it a great read, in a certain frame of mind.