'The Orphans of Raspay' - Book Review

The Orphans of Raspay
by Lois McMaster Bujold

Another "Penric and Desdemona" novella from Bujold. Penric is on a sea voyage that he doesn't want to be on when the ship is overtaken by pirates and he's thrown in the hold with two young orphan girls (from Raspay, as you might guess). They're all taken to an island to be sold as slaves. There, Penric and Desdemona use every ounce of their magic and wits to free, hide, and hopefully get the three of them (four if you count Desdemona) off the island to permanent freedom.

This made me think about the whole "Deus ex machina" thing - "god out of the machine." Wikipedia says it "is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and/or abruptly resolved by an unexpected and unlikely occurrence. Its function is generally to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, and/or act as a comedic device." They also say "It is generally deemed undesirable in writing and often implies a lack of creativity on the part of the author. The reasons for this are that it damages the story's internal logic and is often so unlikely that it challenges the reader's suspension of disbelief." To which I add "Hallelujah."

Bujold's own Curse of Chalion has the ultimate deus ex machina ending - but then, almost the entire novel was spent building up how the gods can act through people under certain very specific circumstances. And that ending, far from being "undesirable," was ... near perfect, because she had brought her reader to the point that it made sense because we understood how the gods worked through improbabilities - or "miracles," if you prefer.

I'm not even going to say "spoiler alert" because you already know Penric survives this book. In this case, the events that occur (particularly the ending) are extremely improbable. Unlike in Curse (where it's eminently clear that the gods were encouraging events), we don't know if the Bastard (that's one of the gods, for those not familiar with her theology) played a hand in this one. But the things that occurred were so near-impossible that it seems likely. And this leaves at least a couple of the characters in the story wondering about the Bastard's involvement. This kind of twisty theological logic and construction is, it seems, what I enjoy most about her stories - and it's been sorely lacking from the Penric and Desdemona tales. For me at least, it made this one a bit better.