Book Reviews

The Assassins of Thasalon by Lois McMaster Bujold

I love the Penric and Desdemona series by Lois McMaster Bujold, and have listened to most of the novellas while sewing over the past year or so. My delight at learning that there was a new novel length Penric story was not measurable by current methods, even with all three of my tape measures.

As of this writing, I am on my third fourth (oy) day of book hangover after finishing it. The Assassins of Thasalon hurdled easily over any barrier to reading time: I started it before bed, then brought my Kindle to the treadmill to read it the following morning. I read it while stirring dinner that evening and while drying dishes afterward. I read it while sitting in the yard over the weekend, and I didn’t notice the full droning backdrop of horny screaming cicadas (which are so loud that one of my dogs tries to bury his head in the dirt to get away from them). The Assassins of Thasalon was a transporting, absorbing book, which isn’t a surprise given how the series is much the same.

I think, if you haven’t read the series, you could jump in with this book. I’m not a big fan of admonishing “shoulds” about reading, though. Yes, the story has a bit more depth and meaning if you’ve read the prior installments, and the appearance of some characters is more engaging if you know who they are, but nothing that happens ruins the prior novellas. I don’t believe there is homework required to appreciate this story in and of itself. And, if you like it, there are a pile of novellas to enjoy that trace Penric and Desdemona’s story from their beginnings together.

Penric, if you’re not familiar, is a sorcerer in the World of the Five Gods created in the Chalion books by Lois McMaster Bujold. Desdemona is the chaos demon who inhabits his body, and she carries the knowledge, memories, and history of the ten women who were possessed before Penric. Basically Penric houses a magically powerful advisory board of aunts and grandmothers in his head. Prior novellas, beginning with Penric’s Demon, explain how Penric came to be possessed of or by a demon, a status usually reserved for those who have received the necessary theological and practical training, and the series is very much the story of their relationship.

At the start of this book, Penric is employed as the court sorcerer for a duke. Pen has correspondence and studying and writing and translating to do, a menu of all his favorite activities, and is pretty content until a chance encounter with his brother in law near the duke’s home results in a sudden attempted murder. Penric and Desdemona narrowly stop the attack, and they quickly realize that another sorceress (aka individual with a demon) has been deployed to kill Pen’s brother-in-law.

Among the tasks Desdemona and Penric have to accomplish:

  • Figure out who the assassin is
  • Figure out who sent the assassin and why
  • Attempt to detangle the politics between two large, somewhat powerful countries
  • Figure out how to protect Pen’s extended family from additional attacks
  • Try not to get killed in the process…
  • So Pen can go home and read

There are road trips, sneaking about, teaching, theological discussions, subterfuge, spying, disguises, plots, even better plots, plus magic, demons, sorcery, corrupt people getting a righteous smackdown, and endless moments of thoughtful kindness. As I said, this is a lovely series to get lost in, and this book is no different: powerful magic nerds go on adventures thoughtfully? Ok!

It’s surprisingly hard for me to grade this book because, much like the Murderbot series, the relief, comfort, and solace I have found in the world and in the series skews my objective analysis. There were a few times in this book where I had to re-read a conversation because I knew I was missing something important. Most of the people who appear in this story are frighteningly brilliant in different, sometimes complementary ways, and I wanted to understand what they were saying, and why. They’re always saying or doing something interesting. There were also points where the story drags as everyone has a meeting to discuss what has happened and what would happen next, but those points often pivoted quickly to more excitement, so if my brain said, “Oh, boy, another meeting?” I knew something would happen shortly. Overall, I read this with a balance of relaxation and attention: my brain and I were deeply soothed by the familiarity while being engaged and attentive to the adventure of smart people (and demons) trying to stop terrible things so Pen can go back home to his family and read books. (I relate to Pen so very much in this regard.)

I think of this series as somewhat set apart in terms of evaluating it against other series I have read. It’s unique in how it works and specifically in how it works on me and my imagination. Therefore this review might not be as useful as I’d like because, “That was just perfect for my brain at that moment and now I want to re-read the series” is not specific and not helpful for evaluative decision making!

I recommend this book if you’re looking for quiet, thoughtful, creative and intelligent people trying to soothe chaos with a little bit of order and keep the people they care about safe and secure. At one point in this book, Penric observes,

“Normal people carrying on with unthinking kindness must be as shocking as sudden sunlight….”

If the balm of people who carry on with unthinking kindness sounds interesting (and you like magic in your fantasy stories) you’ll like this book, and probably the entire series.


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