I’m getting to really like the recent boom in standalone novellas. They’re long enough to feel satisfyingly booklike, and short enough to read in the course of a commute. I want to bring three in particular to your attention this week, each one very different from the others.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and the Shaman is the second of her Penric novellas to be published by Subterranean Press. (There are, at time of writing, four available in ebook.) The Penric novellas are set in her Five Gods world, the same world as The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt, and on internal chronological evidence, some time later than The Hallowed Hunt. The first Penric novella found young Penric possessed of a very old and powerful demon, with the personalities of all its previous hosts. (He calls the collective of these personalities Desdaemona.)
Penric and the Shaman takes place some years later, after Penric has finished his training as a divine of the Bastard’s order. His assistance is requested by Senior Locator Oswyl, a stern investigator from the Father’s order, to help track down and bring back for trial a shaman suspected of murder.
But Inglis, the shaman, is no murderer. At least not intentionally. He’s trying to prevent the soul of his friend from being sundered from the gods…
Penric and the Shaman is suffused with the immanent grace that characterises Bujold’s Five Gods stories. Bujold’s theology here is at once reassuring and implacable: the presence of divinity acting through mortal agency remains arresting in her work, in no small part thanks to the skill and deftness with which she characterises the world and the people in it.
Penric and the Shaman is a marvellous novella, compelling and kind. I recommend it.
I’m not quite sure what to make of Emma Newman’s Brother’s Ruin, a new novella set in a 19th-century London that’s filled with magic. Charlotte, the protagonist, is hiding her talents. She’s an illustrator, a fact which she hides from both her parents and her fiancé, and she’s magically gifted, which she is hiding from everyone. She doesn’t want to join the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts, give up any hope of a normal life and marriage, and swear herself to the service of England. But when she learns—at nearly the same time—that her father is seriously in debt to some very dangerous people, and that her sickly brother is going to be tested by mages of the Royal Society, her actions lead her to discover a murderous conspiracy within the Royal Society’s own ranks.
While Newman’s writing is vivid and entertaining, Charlotte is an extraordinarily naive protagonist. The urge to shake her and yell you utter idiot, what do you think happens when powerful people have no real oversight?! is sometimes overwhelming. This can prove distracting. Distracting, too, is that early on, the novella hints at the work Dr. Jon Snow was doing in tracking deaths around London—which eventually led to the discovery of the sources of cholera and how it was transmitted—but never returns to this fascinating piece of real scientific history.
I really enjoyed Marie Brennan’s novella Cold Forged Flame. Now it has a sequel in the form of Lightning in the Blood, in which Ree gets involved in other peoples’ problems again—this time voluntarily. Ree is a very compelling protagonist: practical, a little bloodthirsty, interested in a challenge, and unable to remember very much at all about who she used to be. This lack of history, uncertainty, makes her absolutely fascinating. She doesn’t let it stop her, but it still matters. Brennan’s talents with prose and characterisation turn Lightning in the Blood from an entertaining adventure into something more than the sum of its parts—and I, for one, am really hoping that there’s more to come.
What are you guys reading lately?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.