Friday, December 10, 2021

Knot of Shadows (Penric and Desdemona (Publication order) #11), by Lois McMaster Bujold

Spectrum Literary Agency, October 2021

Penric, Learned Divine and Temple Sorcerer, is having a quiet morning with his family when a knock at the door brings a summons from Master Tolga, head of the hospice in Vilnoc. A body was fished out of the water in the port, and the body proved to be less dead, or at least more active, than a clearly dead body pulled out of the harbor ought to be. When Penric and his demon, Desdemona, arrive, they find that the body is indeed dead, but a sundered ghost, unable to move on to the afterlife and its god, has taken up residence in the corpse. The ghost will be one of the patients who has recently died in the hospice. More critical is the identity of the corpse. They need to notify his family, or friends, or someone, but the body was dressed only in a cheap worn nightshirt, with no indication of who he was.

While that question is answered when a clerk from the Customs Office in response to the story circulating of a man who fits the description of the head of the office, Master Therneas, who hasn't showed up for work for two days. Yet rather than an answer, this proves to be the start of a confusing and disturbing mystery.

Therneas has died as a result of a death magic, a ceremony that is performed rarely and only in extreme circumstances, a last ditch effort to get justice directly from the gods when no other path is possible. Yet it's not clear whether Therneas was the seeker of justice. The reason this magic is a desperate last chance is because if it works, the seeker of justice is offering up their life as a sacrifice, and both seeker and target are taken by the gods. Therneas doesn't seem to have suffered any outrage against him that would make him so desperate. And while he isn't much liked at the customs office, or the taverns he frequents, or to have any family or friends, he doesn't seem to have committed any great offence, either--at least at first.

This isn't really a murder mystery; Penric, and Alixtra, his sorceress-in-training, know from nearly the beginning that the killer, if they can be called that, is dead. Yet they need to find out who was the justice seeker and who the target, and whether the other party's body has been occupied by a ghost (all too likely, for an unattended death in such a busy city as Vilnoc), and what the crime for which there was no other justice possible was. The story is more a meditation on death, justice, and fairness--and a rather sadder story than most Penric stories are. Very thoughtful, very satisfying in the end, but not an adventure where Penric does, or can, achieve an heroic victory.


I bought this novella.

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