RogerBW's Blog

The Assassins of Thasalon, Lois McMaster Bujold 17 January 2022

2021 fantasy novel in the World of the Five Gods (formerly known as Chalion). Penric's brother-in-law, the former General Arisaydia, is quite happy to ignore the Imperial succession crisis. But one of the factions doesn't trust him to stay out, and sends a new sort of assassin after him. Which generates a theological challenge for Penric…

"You might as well start at the beginning" has become one of my clichés, in these days when getting the first book of a series no longer means a hunt through second-hand shops, but clichés get that way by having value and in this case it's definitely a good idea. Not only do several characters from earlier books reappear (mostly Tanar and Bosha from The Prisoner of Limnos, but there are cameos by the girls from The Orphans of Raspay, the sorcerer from The Physicians of Vilnoc, and the general from Mira's Last Dance); much of the emotional impact rests on remembering the background of Pen's experiences in the Empire in more detail than the quick sketch given here.

There's a definite sense of time passing (it's been two years since Vilnoc, and five years since Pen first met the General and his sister in Penric's Mission). There's also some sense of completion, as several dangling plot elements get wrapped up.

What there isn't, yet again, is much Nikys; she's in at the beginning and the end, and that's it. Yes, all right, there are small children to worry about, but I do feel that after being established as a really interesting character she's now being shunted off into the role of background home comforts that Penric misses when he has to be away. And there's some banter with Desdemona, but that also seems now to have become more a background element than a major strand of the narrative.

Apart from that, it's solidly good, with plenty of the theology that's the keystone of this world, and interesting new and old characters. All right, one repeatedly-signposted dilemma is wrapped up with "it's probably going to be fine", which made me wonder why so much effort had been put into the signposting, but what I really appreciate is that although Penric has a great deal of direct personal power – other sorcerers' demons cower from him, and he knows tricks that can knock out any attacker – he can still be overwhelmed by numbers; even more significantly, if someone sends a squad of guardsmen or soldiers after him, he doesn't want to risk killing or crippling those people who as far as they know are doing the right thing. And the opposition here is the sort that's smart enough not to go up against Penric in person.

(Also, while this is the first novel-length story in this setting, it doesn't get flabby by trying to pad out a novella's worth of plot. Bujold knows what she's doing.)

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Previous in series: The Physicians of Vilnoc | Series: Penric and Desdemona | Next in series: Knot of Shadows

  1. Posted by Chris at 11:15am on 17 January 2022

    " he doesn't want to risk killing or crippling those people who as far as they know are doing the right thing" is nice and makes Penric appear a really Good Guy, but the real reason for him not to risk killing someone is that it is against the Bastard's rules, and if he does kill someone by magic, he will lose the magic. That's the premise on which much of the book rests: how is a Bad Magician to do Bad Things if he can't abuse his magic in that way?

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