Review: The Physicians of Vilnoc by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: The Physicians of Vilnoc by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Physicians of Vilnoc (Penric and Desdemona #8) by Lois McMaster Bujold by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Penric and Desdemona #8, World of the Five Gods #3.8
Pages: 127
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on May 7th 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
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When a mysterious plague breaks out in the army fort guarding Vilnoc, the port capital of the duchy of Orbas, Temple sorcerer Penric and his demon Desdemona are called upon by General Arisaydia to resurrect Penric’s medical skills and solve its lethal riddle. In the grueling days that follow, Pen will find that even his magic is not enough to meet the challenges without help from dedicated new colleagues—and the god of mischance.

“The Physicians of Vilnoc” is the eighth Penric & Desdemona novella, following about a year after the events of “The Orphans of Raspay”

My Review:

I have been haunting Amazon waiting for this book to finally be available for preorder. I didn’t expect it to just become available, period, but it did. And I couldn’t resist diving into it immediately!

Also, the book I was reading – which is awesome and will be up later this week – I already know that it does not exactly have a happy ending. And while this one is about the progress of a contagious disease and has lots of not exactly happy bits in it – nor should it considering the topic – it’s part of an ongoing series and I could be pretty certain that the characters I’ve been following for 8 books now were going to live to get into yet more adventures another day.

The Physicians of Vilnoc is a story that feels like it is speaking directly to the current real-world crisis while still reading like it grew organically out of its setting and its characters. That’s a feat that speculative fiction, both Fantasy like this series as well as SF, are able to do when they are at their best.

This is a story from a Grand Master of the field, in a Hugo-award winning series. As expected, it does an excellent job of both telling its own particular story AND providing insight into the world its readers are living through. Even if you don’t want to see the real-world applications, it’s a damn good story.

And if you do, it’s even better.

Vilnoc is the place where Penric, his demon Desdemona, his wife Niklys and her brother General Arisaydia have come to rest and settled in after their journeys so far in this novella series. (Start with Penric’s Demon and settle in for a wonderful but not overly long ride.)

As the story opens, Penric is explicitly NOT one of the physicians of Vilnoc or anywhere else. He’s capable of being one, he’s even done it before. And that’s precisely why he doesn’t do it now. He literally does not know when to quit. The last time he tried practicing medicine, it was in the midst of a deadly epidemic and he used himself up to the point where he felt like the only way to escape all of the death that surrounded him and that he couldn’t seem to stop was to kill himself.

So he’s beyond reluctant when Arisaydia, now the local garrison commander, shows up at his door asking him to come back to the garrison and pick up his medical practice. In yet another life-threatening crisis.

A disease is going around the barracks, and it’s not any of the many, many usual things that go around. The garrison’s chief medic is overwhelmed and dying himself of this unidentified disease that absolutely no one wants to label as a plague. Even though it is.

And Penric, who never knows when to quit and can’t refuse his brother-in-law any aid that he has within his power to grant, rides off into hell.

He can’t come home until he’s certain that he has figured out what the disease is and eradicates it. He can’t bring an unknown contagion back to his wife and his infant daughter.

He doesn’t recognize the disease, and neither does Desdemona. He has little help and no time to spare. He’s fighting a losing battle with no idea of who, or what, makes up the opposition forces.

But he has to try. And he has to succeed before it overwhelms that little town that holds his family.

Escape Rating A: I love this series, and have from the very first book, Penric’s Demon, in 2015. It was a beautiful and completely unexpected revisit to the world of the author’s Chalion series, which I also loved. But Penric’s adventures are terrific as well as set on a much smaller scale than the usual doorstop size of an epic fantasy. Each is a gem, but they are better read in order. Luckily it is not necessary to go back to the original series, not that it isn’t lovely in its own right. But Penric’s story feels like it introduces the world enough to get new readers going, and it builds marvelously as it goes along.

Desdemona is the demon who lives within, or rides, Penric. She’s not a demon in the theological sense, she’s more akin to a Trill symbiont from Star Trek. Only not quite as old, I think, as Dax.

But two of Desdemona’s previous riders were physicians, as was Penric himself before he burned out. Which doesn’t stop him from answering the call yet again. And it’s his work as a physician in this story that provides its heart as well as its resonance for 21st century readers.

Because the contagion that Penric has been called in to identify and treat – although not necessarily in that order – is a medical mystery. As Penric begins walking, then wading and eventually nearly sleepwalking through endless rounds of healing an ever-increasing and ever-spreading number of patients, he knows neither what the disease it nor how it is spread. It is all that he can do to keep treating the sick.

He’s isolated and alone. Scared that what he is doing will not be enough. Desperate to find a cure – or even just to figure out how it is transmitted so that some prevention can be undertaken. And it’s difficult not to see parallels between the current situation in hospitals and the self-quarantining of first responders and Penric’s desperate situation.

On the one hand, once Penric does figure out where the disease is coming from the solution is easy albeit not painless. Whereas we are in the situation where we now how the disease is transmitted and we can enact containment strategies – we just don’t know how to stop it in its tracks.

But in Penric’s search for answers, it’s easy to see just how difficult the task is, both for him and for us. Penric does get his “eureka” moment, he does figure out both the questions and the answers. There is a happy ending for him and the other characters we’ve come to follow and care for – but there was a cost and it was not a small one. Lives matter.

So, for readers that want to see our present in this fantasy world, that interpretation can make this story richer and more meaningful. But if you’re just in it for a cracking good story and a fascinating medical mystery, that’s there as well.

I’m always happy to ride along on Penric’s latest adventure.

Before I finish this review, I have one final bit of wisdom from a 200 year old demon to share with you. It’s something that is just as valid in our current crisis, or even just in everyday life, as it is during the crisis that Penric is contending with, “Don’t borrow trouble. The interest rate is much too high.”

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