Well, it’s the middle (the end? what even is time) of May. As I write this, here in Ireland, we’ve been under movement restrictions for two months, and strict restrictions for one, and while the current government has a well-thought-out five-stage plan for (slowly, carefully, over the course of a minimum of fifteen weeks) lifting restrictions, I’m not really optimistic that the death toll won’t rise again as soon as we hit Stage Two. So it’s not really surprising that I’m among the many people having difficulty concentrating right now. How do we achieve the kind of equilibrium necessary to experience confidence, satisfaction, and/or some degree of pleasure in our work or in the rest of our lives under the conditions that presently obtain? I don’t rightly know.
In the meanwhile, I’ll tell you about three books that I did manage to concentrate on reading—even greatly enjoyed!
Lois McMaster Bujold’s latest Penric and Desdemona novella is The Physicians of Vilnoc, and like all of Bujold’s work, it is humane, accomplished, and very, very good. Alas, I must give fair warning that it also features an epidemic outbreak of a mysterious and dangerous disease.
Penric (and perforce his demon Desdemona) and his wife Nikys have recently become parents. When Nikys’s brother General Adelis Arisaydia asks for Penric’s help with a mysterious outbreak of illness in the garrison he has in his charge, Penric’s sense of duty and his curiosity combine to take him away from home and spur him (and Desdemona) to action. Soon Pen finds himself all but swamped by the needs of the sick, his capacity as a sorcerer-physician stretched to its utmost. (For only the most desperate cases need a sorcerer-physician’s skill.) And he still must try to understand how the outbreak came about, and how it may be stopped from spreading.
The Physicians of Vilnoc is structured something like a mystery, and something like a meditation on ethics—as so many of the Penric and Desdemona novellas are. Filled with a keen sense of kindness and empathy, it feels a fundamentally generous story, and one that is deftly written. Bujold’s use of language in her fantasies has always been striking, sometimes surpassingly beautiful, and the same is true here. I adore this series, and The Physicians of Vilnoc is no exception, horribly infectious disease and all.
Aliette de Bodard’s Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders is a novelette that might have alternately been titled “Murder Husbands On Holiday.” Set in the same continuity as the Dominion of the Fallen books (House of Shattered Wings, House of Binding Thorns, House of Sundering Flames), and at a point after the events of the last novel, it features Thuan of House Hawthorn, by birth a prince of the dragon kingdom under the Seine, and his husband Asmodeus (for whom all problems should be soluble by either torture, clever violence, or intelligent threats), as they visit Thuan’s old home for the Lunar New Year celebrations. Unfortunately for Thuan’s peace of mind, he’s quickly inveigled into political manoeuvring—and his ruthless husband is delighted that a corpse outside his door and the attendant murder investigation may relieve the tedium of a diplomatic visit. (Thuan is somewhat disconcerted by how well his grandmother and Asmodeus take to each other. Bonding over slaughtering their enemies: it’s a little unnerving.)
De Bodard’s work frequently examines relations, and problems, of power: conflicting loyalties, moral imperatives, and ethical frameworks with both a keen empathy and a sharp eye for characterisation and worldbuilding. Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders possesses these things in full measure, with a compellingly twisty share of intrigue (both personal and political) and a satisfying resolution. If you’ve enjoyed de Bodard’s other work in this setting, I recommend this story highly.
EK Johnston’s Prairie Fire is one of the very few novels to have caused me to weep with deeply felt emotion. This is a heartbreaking—and heartbreakingly good—book, and it’s all the better for me not seeing the heartbreak coming.
Prairie Fire is a direct sequel to The Story of Owen. First published in 2015, it’s freshly available in paperback, and it tells the story of Owen and Siobhan as they join the Canadian military in the form of the dragon-slaying focused Oil Watch, and leave home for basic training and then assignment in Alberta. New dangers loom, and new friends become part of the story.
Johnston writes quiet, measured books, as a rule: books focused on characters and the interpersonal consequences of their choices. This is true here, too, but “quiet” and “measured” doesn’t in any way mean lacking tension: rather the opposite. Prairie Fire is a powerful, compelling novel, but I would recommend reading The Story of Owen first.
How are you all holding up?
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, 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.