A Review in Three Stages
If “The Orphans of Raspay” is your first Bujold: Penric is an archetypical hero, and sharing a mind with an entity is an old and wonderful trope; Lois McMaster Bujold does her trope-twisting magic with both. You won’t have any trouble following the story on this level. This is an exciting tale with a happy ending, and lots of things that go boom. Some people may feel leery about the fact that the Orphans could be sex-trafficked. I’m squeamish myself, but Lois has a light hand, and while I worry about the girls, I know they are going to be fine. The girls are really well done, too. So often, writers turn child-characters into plot moppets, or precocious brats. These kids are essential to the story, and they act like kids. If you like clever tales of adventure, this is well worth a few hours of time. Penric and his demon, Desdemona, are a great team!
For people who have read the Penric series, but not much else:
CAUTION: HERE BE SPOILERS FOR THE PREVIOUS NOVELLAS (maybe).
It’s another Penric and Desdemona! Fabulous!
Let me get the bad news out of the way first: we don’t get to see Penric and Nikys’s courtship, marriage and honeymoon period. I guess we’ll have to leave that for the fan-ficcers. I DON’T WANNA! I want to see Lois’ version of the events! But for 431 yen on Amazon, I get what I get, and I don’t pitch a fit. Much.
The good news is that Penric is just as gorgeous and clever and lovely as ever. Desdemona is snarky and also thinks well on her feet (so to speak) as always. They fight the wrongs in the world, and while things look very, very dark for our Heroes at some points, the ending is a happy one.
We could sum up the plot simply as “Penric and Desdemona save two cute orphans from pirates.” But, there are the very dark threads in here that involve hard choices. First, there’s the fact that the pirates assign the two girl orphans value because they are virgins. In fact, everyone captured by the pirates are reduced to outside assessments – this is human trafficking, and only the external value is considered. Penric’s a multi-lingual scribe, and this saves him. OTOH, one of the most valuable things about him is his role as host of Desdemona – but if the pirates knew, it could get him killed. What is a man worth? What is a child worth? Does potential count for nothing? Who has the right to take these freedoms?
The other hard issue is what to do with the children. We find out quite early in the book that the two girls, Lencia and Seuka Corva, lost their mother who was the mistress of an ocean-going trader, and the girls are in search of their father. Their mother’s maid abandons them, but other strangers help them on their quest . . . but then, pirates happen. There were no good choices for the children. Their landlord kicked them out, their father was absent and the father’s wife would be hostile, and the maid doesn’t have the strength to raise these two children as her own. They wind up in the hold of a pirate ship, where they meet Penric and Desdemona, who were also captured. I won’t tell you where they end up, because that would be spoiling things. But it is a better place than their parents could provide.
The hand of the Bastard god is strong in this story. The story-telling is engrossing, and there’s that silver thread of humor that laces all of Lois’s works. Despite the heavy situation, the story feels light. One does wonder just what the Bastard has in mind for these two girls. I feel like there could be a Corva Sisters Adventure in one of the possible timelines.
For people who have read all the Bujold:
CAUTION: ALMOST DEFINITELY SPOILERS FOR OTHER WORKS AND YOU NEED THE PREREQUISITES TO ENJOY THIS CRITICISM (I think).
This is a Bujold, through and through. Pen is a charismatic character who needs to use his words not his fists to get out of sticky situations. Women’s issues MATTER. Living in a civilized society is tough, but not as tough as when chaos reigns.
The first rescue of the prisoners reminded me very much of “The Borders of Infinity” where Miles Vorkosigan manages to rescue every single prisoner, well or not, and gets them safely to the mothership. The BoI rescue was the climax of the story, but here, it’s part of the continuing trouble. Long-time readers will also see parallels between the island of Lantihera and the planet of Jackson’s Whole. The whole society is perverted by greed, scarcity and the lack of a leader. Cooperation and trust die away as the leaders of the society betray and exploit everyone they can. Even good people find it hard to make a difference – but they are still there, doing good as far as they can do it without getting into trouble with the capricious “authorities.”
I’m still sad we missed out on Penric and Nikys’ courtship. Lois does romance so well, and I’m sure it was full of complications and tricky situations. We don’t have the kind of cast of characters that A Civil Campaign did, but with Nikys, Penric, all the different personalities of Desdemona, Nikys’s mother and brother, and let’s not forget the Duke of Orbas, the archdivine and all their staff, we’d have more than enough for a novella-length comedy of manners.
But, I’m happy we got a new Penric adventure! (I’ve got such a crush on him (-:.) It’s still ebook only, but on all the usual platforms. I got mine from Amazon.co.jp. Lois has links on Goodreads, too.