This novella is a curious blend of a murder mystery and a theological tractate. The three main characters – the murderer, the temple policeman chasing after him, and the sorcerer Penric, dispatched by his superiors to help apprehend the murderer – are all good guys. Yes, the murderer too. The entire murder seemed so steeped in mystical shamanic mumbo jumbo that the only clear fact I extracted from the story was that someone was murdered, and the murderer might have had some vague arcane motives for fleeing the scene: hence the chase.
The plot isn’t really that important. What is important is the characters and the theology of the world they live in.
Strangely, Penric, the titular character, has the least time on the page as the POV character. Mostly, the reader is either in the head of the policeman or that of our hapless murderer. Both are nice guys, really, but Penric is the most fascinating of the lot, and Bujold managed to portray him not through his POV but through his conversations with the policeman and the murderer (when he is finally caught).
Penric is a sorcerer. He carries inside his body (or soul or mind, I’m still unclear) a demon. In Bujold’s world, demons are forces of destruction, not inherently good or bad. They grant their human carriers the ability to work magic in exchange for existing in our world.
Unlike most sorcerers, Penric treats his demon like a person. He even named her Desdemona, which is unheard of among sorcerers. He knows that demons need destruction to exist, so wherever he goes, he makes Desdemona destroy pests. No cockroach or lice can survive Penric’s visits. As there is an inexhaustible supply of those, Penric is able to balance the destruction Desdemona wrecks on the blood-sucking parasites to do good stuff with his magic. His goal is to help people, and he helps the poor murderer too: with his advice, with his courage, with his trust.
I loved Penric. His presence and his interactions with Desdemona make this story worth reading. He treats his demon like a friend (actually, he treats everyone like a friend), and she reciprocates, even curbs her destructive tendencies for him. Penric’s humor and his compassion counteract the convoluted theology of the story, which otherwise threatens to suck the plot into the morass of philosophizing.
And unlike most modern literature with its faulty or tragic heroes, Penric is an all-around simple upstanding guy, kind, honorable, and tolerant of others’ flaws. Desdemona got lucky when she found him. He has no visible weaknesses (if you disregard his demon, of course), and I liked it most of all.