Lois McMaster Bujold,
The Spirit Ring
(Baen, 1992)

In a dramatic departure from her Vorkosigan space adventures, Lois McMaster Bujold tackles the daunting challenges of historical fantasy for The Spirit Ring. For the most part she succeeds, crafting a world -- and characters to populate it -- that's every bit as accurate as it is fantastic.

The Italian Renaissance is in full swing, and fat Prospero Beneforte is the magicsmith in the province of Montefoglia, creating wondrous magic artifacts, using spells sanctioned by the church. His headstrong daughter, Fiametta, is also gifted with the skill of a magicsmith, despite traditional prohibitions on women working with such spells. Tradition, however, falls by the wayside when Lord Ferrante kills Prospero's patron in a bid to add Montefoglia to his holdings. Armed with an outlawed spirit ring -- a ring containing the soul of a dead child, forced to do the wearer's will -- Ferrante challenges Prospero, only to have the wily magicsmith destroy the powerful ring and set the trapped soul free.

Unfortunately, that doesn't prevent Ferrante from overrunning Montefoglia and forcing Prospero to flee with Fiametta. When Prospero suffers a heart attack and dies, Fiametta is left to her own devices. She watches helplessly as Ferrante takes his revenge on Prospero, having his enemy bound into a new spirit ring. Freeing her father from his unholy prison becomes Fiametta's obsession, along with freeing her homeland.

Complicating matters is Thur, a decidedly rural Swiss immigrant and brother to a slain Montefoglia guard who accidentally puts on Fiametta's single magical creation -- a ring that reveals true love -- and cannot take it off.

Bujold takes a fairly standard fantasy plot and hangs such authentic detail on it that the traditional framework is unrecognizable at times. She twists a lot of fantasy conventions and develops the plot at different points in such a way the reader is constantly guessing what really will happen next -- the obvious seldom does. Bujold did her research for this book, and it shows. The politics and technology have an air of authenticity about them, as does the everpresent church. The magic here is integrated quite thoroughly into the fabric of this society -- quite probably the way magicians and alchemists in the 16th century actually did function, the difference here being that Prospero's magic really works. Even Mediterranean myths about gnomes who live in solid rock, emerging only at night to steal milk are put to good use.

Despite the obvious strengths of the book, there are a number of flaws. Bujold's pacing is off, and the story doesn't flow as smoothly as her science fiction. There's almost a hesitation, an uncertainty as to whether this book will be accepted by her legions of fans and whether she is capable of handling the material. Perhaps her publisher didn't encourage the project, hoping for another guaranteed SF bestseller instead. I don't know, but whatever the case, the natural rhythm of Bujold's writing bogs down on a regular basis. Fortunately, these instances are quite brief, and before long the story's off again.

Bujold brings a lot of fresh ideas to the fantasy subgenre, and her intermixing of magic with church dogma brings up fascinating questions. The spirit ring itself is a frightening concept, and one I'm quite glad is confined to fiction. In many ways, The Spirit Ring reads like a first novel -- which it is, in a way -- and when approached in that light, is really quite enjoyable. With time and experience, Bujold should gain the skill and confidence in her fantasy work that she so consistently shows in her science fiction.

[ by Jayme Lynn Blaschke ]

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