When it comes to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods novellas, featuring the Temple sorcerer Penric and his demon Desdaemona, I’m slowly (and, admittedly, a little resentfully) reading them as they come out in Subterranean Press’s beautiful hardcover editions—since the electronic versions are Amazon-exclusive. They’re an utter joy to read, the perfect novella slice of narrative. Penric’s Fox is the latest to be available in paperback, and it’s set a few months after the events of Penric and the Shaman.
Penric is in the capital in the company of his patroness the princess archdivine. He’s taken the opportunity to visit with his friend Inglis, the shaman of Penric and the Shaman, and the investigator Oswyl, who also featured in Penric and the Shaman. Oswyl is late to their fishing rendezvous, and when he arrives, he solicits both of their help. Pen finds himself involved in the investigation of the death of a Temple sorcerer. The death may or may not be murder, but it has almost certainly resulted in the sorcerer’s demon jumping to another host—either the murderer, or a wild animal.
While Oswyl is responsible for investigating the death, Penric and Desdaemona feel themselves responsible for the demon. Penric is of the opinion that while there may have only been one corpse, the crime had two victims. This is an excellent story, suffused with Bujold’s trademark humanity and concern with ethics, brilliantly characterised.
(I’ll confess to only one moment of disappointment: when I thought Bujold was going to let two of the female characters pair off and flirt with each other, but they didn’t. I’m just a little bit extra into things that show queer women, okay? It’s probably a character flaw, but every time I see them represented, I get a little shot of comfort and glee.)
Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue isn’t advertised as fantasy, but the presence of alchemy—a woman caught between life and death, her heart turned into a panacea, an imprisoned alchemist and his near-adult children—definitely tips what would otherwise be a non-SFF novel of the 18th century over into the territory of the fantastic. Henry Montague is disgraced young aristocrat (who likes to sleep with all flavours of human), on a Grand Tour of Europe with his younger sister Felicity and his mixed-race best friend Percy, with whom he’s in love. This tour goes sideways—even before Henry discovers that Percy isn’t being sent away to the Netherlands to law school, but instead to an asylum for epilepsy—when Henry, rakehell to the bone, steals a valuable object from the duke of Bourbon. Separated from their cicerone, they’re chased all over the Mediterranean until they can solve an alchemical puzzle, and the puzzle of what to do now that the duke of Bourbon is out for their necks.
Along the way, Henry learns to be less of an absolute ass—to be fair, he’s a very compelling, believable ass—and to listen to the people around him, as well as understanding that the world as he sees it and the world as Percy and Felicity experience it are entirely different things. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a fun and entertaining ride, a very promising debut. But despite its amusing voice and breakneck pace—or perhaps because of them—it feels slight.
Though perhaps I’ve just grown old and jaded. It was enjoyable, nonetheless.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.