Michaeline: New Penric! and Thoughts on Life-Long Love

A still life with two masks.

The fourth Penric novella by Lois McMaster Bujold is a delightful episode! (Image via Goodreads; cover design by Ron Miller)

So, first the most exciting news I had all week: Lois McMaster Bujold’s new Penric novella, Mira’s Last Dance came out this week (February 27th and 28th) on all the usual e-outlets! And it was fantastic! If you were left hanging a little bit by Penric’s Mission, then you’ll be pleased to hear that the story picks up from that point, and we get one lovely episode of courtship via political intrigue, escape and a brothel. That Penric is a delightful travelling companion, and I recommend the journey.

I’m not going to spoil you, though – Bujold reports that the novella is 28,000 words, which is perfect for a large pot of tea and an afternoon on the sofa. Spoil yourself.

What I am going to talk about is something that Mira said in the book. She’s the . . . well, the ghost/image of an Adrian courtesan who is part and parcel of the past lives that make up Desdemona. (Desdemona is the demon in Penric’s head.) She has a very clear and pragmatic view of sex and love, and mentions at one point,:

“The darling men used to imagine they’d fallen in love with me all the time. Most of them were actually in love with their own cocks.”

Ah, yes. And thus, genitalia doth betray us all.

Unless we are spectacularly lucky, and the good sex is accompanied by someone who has compatible interests, similar life goals, and a certain willingness to be flexible when time (the bastard) brings changes to all our plans. In addition, that someone will be unwilling to abandon a good investment. And of course, as heroes in our own love stories, we better bring matching qualifications.

A lot of the romance that I like struggles with this problem. In Jennifer Crusie’s Faking It, the heroine and hero have sexual problems until the air is cleared and they know that they respect each other’s worst aspects/darkest secrets.

Physical attraction and loving in the moment: Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson listen to their bodies, not their frontal lobes. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Physical attraction and loving in the moment: Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson listen to their bodies, not their frontal lobes. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

On the other hand, I’ve read (and forgotten the titles of) countless romances where the guy is impossible, or the girl is impossible, but they wind up with a happily-ever-after because of spine-tingling kisses that sweep them over the edge of desire (yes, this kind of romance often wafts in on a cloud of purple prose). Oh, I remembered one such story: Pillow Talk. It was a Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie, and while it was a lot of fun, the character Rock Hudson played was a real jerk. Mr. Right-Now, because I’m sure after a few years, the “hero” would be cheating, and the heroine would either be drinking, divorcing or both.

As David Bowie* sang, “She’s uncertain if she likes him, but she really, really loves him.” Bleh, lord help us. Not the kind of guy you want to buy a house with.

The very lovely His Girl Friday with Cary Grant (playing Walter Burns) and Rosalind Russell (as Hildy Johnson) is another romance along this model. It’s got great, snappy dialog, a sizzling chemistry, and a powerhouse plot that drives the two lovers into each other’s arms. I’m not quite sure, though, if Walter is following his cock, or his keen editor’s sense of who is going to deliver great news for his newspaper. Probably both, which is one reason why the story works. In a romance, we want to think there’s something else there besides physical attraction, and these two seem to match up nicely.

Unfortunately, I think they are going to wind up divorced in a few years, too. They are both lovely people, but even though Walter appreciates The Best Sex Ever as well as his honey’s intelligence and smarts, he doesn’t appreciate her homey side – the part where Hildy yearns for a little peace and quiet and a white picket fence. Hildy herself is overwhelmed by The Best Sex Ever, as well as having a conversational partner who can keep up with her. She seems willing to settle, for now, for a guy with no domestic side to him at all. The things that broke them up in the first place are still in place. It’d take major brain trauma to change Walter into the kind of guy Hildy can build a family with – and major brain trauma is also a major minus in the husband lottery. There’s a lot of tragedy underlying this comedy.

I don’t know how Penric’s love story is going to wind up, but he isn’t a jerk, and neither is his love antagonist, Nikys. The demon Desdemona has great potential for being a huge, world-altering sort of jerk, but she, too, has a practical side, and also seems so very, very fond of Pen. Her actions, like any good sidekick in a romance, are under control, so she adds spice to mixture, not plot-crumbling agitation.

As you can see, I’m still wrestling with the whole idea of Best Sex Ever and what it means in a romance. Mira’s right – a lot of people listen to their genitals when it comes to romance, those biological barometers of love and lust. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but a good romance is going to pay attention to a lot of different sliding scales, not just the ones played in the bedroom scenes.

*David Bowie sang that phrase in “Drive-In Saturday” where kids of the future don’t know how to have sex, so try to learn it from old movies. “His name was always Buddy.” From YouTube — a live version from the Harty interview, if I’m not mistaken. Those of you who have met Mira — note the raw red hair, not a lovely henna’d auburn (of the Low period, I naughtily add. My DB obsession continues only slightly abated).


6 thoughts on “Michaeline: New Penric! and Thoughts on Life-Long Love

  1. Happy news, Michaeline! I do like that novellas have become a Thing. Long enough to be satisfying, short enough to read in a guilt-free sitting (I always read in one gulp but often it leads me to neglect sleep, or ignore important tasks). Plus it usually means more frequent releases.

    I love these stories and I’m very curious to see more of Penric’s courtship of Nikys. When their attraction became apparent I found myself wondering how Bujold was going to manage it–in any other writer, a hero with a female community living inside him, offering a running commentary at the most private of times, would be a deal-breaker to any kind of romance. When Pen first acquires Desdemona, he wakes with a morning erection, reaches for himself, and is abashed when she says something along the lines of “ooh, this should be interesting.” How could a heroine make love to a hero with his entire adoptive family sharing the experience and offering opinions and suggestions? The wonderful thing is, I feel sure Bujold will find a way–her characters can be delightfully pragmatic about unconventional personal arrangements.

    I have Things To Do today, drat it, but am planning to read tonight, if I can, or more likely tomorrow afternoon on the sofa with a large pot of tea 😀

    • Me too! There wasn’t a lot of notice that Mira’s Last Dance was out, but it came out on iTunes the day before it came out on my preferred e-store. So, I had big plans to make a pot of soup that night, and speed through the pet care so I could spend all evening (and possibly part of the morning) with the new story.

      And then, I got lazy. Didn’t make that soup, and thought, “Well, I’ll just get started on it during my lunch hour.” And lo and behold, the book was consumed with great voraciousness, and I had plenty of time to walk the dogs and snuggle with the cats. (And found some leftover fish chowder in the back of the fridge, so it was a soup day after all!)

      Of course I want more. And it left me with a longing to go back and read the whole series, including the three big books, in story-chronological order. But, it was hugely satisfying, and I really like it. I’m spinning schemes in my head to get my own short stories and novellas out there . . . .

      I think when I ask you guys to beta-read my next story, I’ll also ask you to time it (if it’s convenient). If people can read, say, 8000 of my words in an hour, then it’s perfect for a lunch break on a dreary day.

      (-: Next step — get the next story out of my head and onto the paper!

    • (-: Can you imagine? Like a Greek chorus in the bedroom! It seems that Penric can politely ask Desdemona to shut up (out of earshot, out of mind?), but being a demon, it seems like Desdemona just can’t control herself sometimes.

      I get a lot of voices in my head, sometimes, too. I know they are all me, but they sometimes shout out the most contradictory (and sometimes unhelpful) advice at the most useless times. “Why didn’t you tell me in the foyer that I left my paperwork, instead of waiting 15 minutes into my commute? Sigh.” Sigh, because obviously, it (whatever it is) didn’t remember either — it was just slightly faster on the uptake than my master brain. It wants a cookie and be told it’s a good it for remembering . . . .Oh, and it’s a good it, it is. Very, very good it! (No sense in antagonizing the it.)

      • The first Penric novella got me thinking that poor Penric’s sex life was going to be like making love while a ten woman MSt3K * crew provides a commentary track.

        * Mystery Sex Theater 3000?

        • Hi, Royce! Welcome to the blog!

          It sounds like Penric and Desdemona have an agreement — he can tell her to butt out. It does seem a little unfair that Desdemona seems to be able to consult secretly from Pen, but Pen can’t really keep Des out of his head. She’s recording everything . . . . I wonder if during arguments Des brings up some of those things from times when she’s supposed to be “absent”. She does sometimes seem to slip and say something snarky and spontaneous. She’s not AI (or if she IS AI of a sort, she’s developed far enough that she can think and reason and feel).

          I think that’s an important step that this novella addresses — we really see that Desdemona has longings and desires. She’s not just a “I don’t like that/I like that” binary sort of being. I can see how a demon trapped in a body run by a benighted soul with narrow mind and narrow thoughts would long to take over.

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