Due to the vagaries of e-publishing (and my personal preferences), I continue to only read Lois McMaster Bujold’s self-published novellas after Subterranean Press has picked them up and published them in gorgeous hardcover. The latest of these is Mira’s Last Dance, the fifth Penric and Desdemona novella to be published, and a direct sequel to Penric’s Mission.
Penric, scholar, healer, and temple sorcerer, was injured at the conclusion of Penric’s Mission. He and the betrayed general Adelis Arisaydia, and Adelis’s widowed sister Nikys, are still on the run, trying to get across the mountains from Cedonia into the (presumed) safety of the duchy of Orbas. Fate (or the Bastard, the god under whose auspices Penric and his resident demon Desdemona fall) takes them to a brothel in a small town whose inhabitants are currently suffering from a plague of bedbugs. Penric’s skills at removing such insects win the companions temporary shelter, and in the course of employing his skills as a healer on the house’s madam, he hits upon a masquerade that may see them safely to the border: he, Penric, will take on woman’s guise and impersonate a courtesan.
One of the personalities imprinted within Desdemona—one of her previous hosts—was herself a courtesan, one of the most successful of her time. With Mira’s help, Penric’s imposture is so successful that he finds himself with a client whose purse may well fund the rest of their flight—and Mira (and Desdemona) is enthusiastic about the chance to employ her skills.
But this interlude makes Nikys, with whom Penric was beginning to, tentatively, explore a burgeoning mutual attraction, re-evaluate how she sees this peculiar, unpredictable, gentle, well-meaning and ruthless-with-himself temple sorcerer. She hadn’t, before, been given evidence of just quite how present the imprints of Desdemona’s previous hosts were within him. And though they make it successfully to at least a temporary safety in Orbas, Nikys and Penric still have things unsaid and unresolved between them.
I’m given to understand that the sixth Penric novella, The Prisoner of Limnos, follows directly on from this one. And I’m going to look forward to it, because gentle and quiet and transgressive and moving as this novella is, I really want to see where the emotional arc of these characters goes from here.
I’ve followed Catherine Asaro’s work (in a fairly desultory way, it must be admitted) since coming across her romance-and-adventure-and-psionics-in-space Skolian Empire novels some years ago. I’ve never been able to keep the timeline straight for that saga—nor yet the entire cast of characters, some of whose fates have dangled unresolved for years—but fortunately, the latest entries in that continuity are entirely more self-contained propositions.
I’ve just read The Bronze Skies, which is the second novel to feature private investigator Major Bhaajan as she acts as an intermediary between Skolian high society and the hidden depths of the city-beneath-a-city where she grew up—a community dismissed as a slum and believed to be hardly inhabited by the authorities. In The Bronze Skies, she’s hired by the Ruby Pharaoh herself to track down a murderer who shouldn’t have been able to commit murder: a Jagernaut, one of the elite fighters of the Skolian empire, whose augmentations and psionic empathy make them also among the most highly monitored. But this Jagernaut killed a man without apparent provocation and fled to Bhaajan’s city of catacombs and aqueducts, and all the forces of the empire are finding her hard—practically impossible—to track. Enter Bhaajan.
The quest for the missing Jagernaut uncovers old pieces of forgotten Skolian history, and culminates in a confrontation between artificial intelligences and the protectors of the Skolian empire in the desert, a confrontation that could bring down the empire and everything within it. The Bronze Skies is a fun and compelling read, but one that rather defies easy categorisation. I recommend it.
Let me close this week’s column by mentioning Barbara Hambly’s latest Benjamin January historical mystery novel, the tense and gripping Cold Bayou. Set in 1839 and featuring Benjamin Janvier, a free man of colour in New Orleans, Cold Bayou is an atmospheric and compelling story, well worth reading.
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. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. 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, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.