“Penric’s Progress” by Lois McMaster Bujold, Baen Books, 2020, 320 pages $25
Penric, the youngest son of an impoverished and rural minor noble household is on his way to his betrothal when fate alters his life. He stops to help a dying temple divine and inherits her demon.
“Penric’s Progress,” a collection of three fantasy novellas by Lois McMaster Bujold, opens with this incident.
It changes Penric. Before, his future was marriage into a wealthy cheesemaking family and a boring existence in a mercantile family seeking a noble ornament to bolster their status. Instead, he’s placed on a path to become a scholar and a sorcerer.
Penric wanted to become a scholar, but his family’s poverty precluded that. That opportunity is now involuntary, and the price is becoming a sorcerer, something Penric never sought. It means being host to a demon, a force of nature that can manipulate its environment.
The downside is demons find destruction (increasing disorder) easier than construction (reversing disorder). Sometimes hosts lose control of their demons that go onto become destructive menaces that have to be destroyed. Penric is viewed as a potential bomb that must be taught to control his demon.
The upside is some destruction is good. Penric never has to worry about vermin. Killing them gives his demon energy. Plus Penric’s demon is old, experienced and powerful. Penric is the 13th mortal she has inhabited, including 10 women, a mare, and a lioness. She finds Penric an amusing host and wants to work with him.
“Penric’s Progress” follows Penric through his first three adventures. He learns to master his new powers, avoiding those seeking to kill him for their own gain and exploring a wider world that had been previously barred to him due to his family’s poverty and his own bookish nature.
Penric is the polar opposite of Bujold’s most famous fictional character, Miles Vorkosigan. They have many similarities. Both come from nobility and are extremely clever and inveterate puzzle-solvers. While Miles is hyperactive, Penric is laid-back. Miles acts, often impulsively, while Penric reacts after careful consideration. “Penric’s Progress” is a fantasy version of Bujold’s science fiction Vorkosigan saga, and no less entertaining.