As many of you have probably figured out by now, I'm a big fan of Bujold's work. Her science fiction, at least. The Vorkosigan Saga, an intergenerational family drama blended with adventure, politics, romance and, well, a lot more, is to my mind one of the seminal work sin the field. But somehow, I've mostly not cast an eye over her fantasy work.
Which, it turns out, is a shame, because it's a lot of fun!
Penric's Demon is the start of a series of novellae focused on the eponymous Penric. As the story begins, he's on his way to a wedding. Well, his wedding. One he doesn't seem overly enthused about, but which, as the dutiful younger son to a minor noble house, he feels obliged to go through with. Things take, well, lets call it a turn from there, and by the close, Penric's world has been changed forever. Possibly for the better!
The worldbuilding is, as you might expect from an author of Bujold's character, top notch. Given the form, she's clear and concise in her descriptions, getting you as much of a payload of "world" as possible in relatively few words. If there aren't any multi-page descriptions of food (sorry, GRRM fans!), there's context cluses and dialogue asides to keep us grounded in Penric's world, and enough description with tightly observed, precise details to make that world feel fleshed out and lived in. The story gives us enough context to play itself out; it wouls be churlish to want more. In a larger novel, I probably would, but here, what we have works wonderfully, building up enough of a framework of society, culture and environment that you can fill in the blanks yourself.
Interestingly, these Penric stories take plac ein the same world as some of Bujold's other fantasy work; I certainly didn't need to have read them to get a lot of enjoyment out of this story and its world, though I might go and try those other novels out at some point, for the extra flavour.
In terms of character, we see the same focus and precision given to Penric as we do to his world. In his actions, and in his internal dialogue, we find a young man in a rut, acting out of a sens eof family and duty, conscious of limited horizons, tolerating and chafing around their edges. He's a good lad, and an affable, likable protagonist. As things move along, he proves to have some hidden depths as well. I think the only flaw here is that the other characters, broadly, get less attention than I would like, and we don't see much of the motives of, for example, those antagonists whim Penric runs across. On the other hand, what we do have in this short space of narrative is very well done - Penric's family are, given a few traits on the page, people we can all identify with and have probably met in some form or other ourselves, and if the antagonists are mostly nasty pieces of work, still, they pull it off convincingly. There's certainly enough here to make you give a crap about the people on the page.
The story itself, well, I shan't spoil it, but it shifts along reasonably well. There's a certain amount of setup, as one might expect from the start of a series ("This is the protagonist.."). But once things get rolling, there's enough wit, banter, excitement, peril and chaos for anybody. This feels like a bite size read, in a good way; i found it hard to stop reading, and the short form encouraged me not to. I suppose my only real complaint is that though there's a complete story in here, I really wanted more. Which, well, fortunately there's another nine or ten of these stories, so that's not really a problem. This is a quick, entertaining tale that made me chuckle occasionally, and had some surprisingly effective emotional moments - it's a good time, a nifty adventure, and if you want a literary snack, this is definitely worth your time.