Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Under the Tuscan sun

The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold has been on my "Want to read" list for several years now, but I've never gotten around to it until now.

Honestly, I know it was released with little real fanfare, the lauds for her fantasy came later with The Curse of Chalion, but this is still a rather tasty morsel, maybe not as polished as her later works, but really good none the less.

Unlike Chalion, we're mostly in the real world, in late medieval-early Renaissance Italy in the City-State of Montefoglia. (We're not given a year to work with, but much of the statuary discussed has pagan themes, although we're told that the Malleus Maleficarum is roughly 10-15 years old here and the Inquisition does have its fires going.) Nestled roughly between Venice and Florence, Montefoglia's Duke Sandrino has a bad tendency to dangle payment in front of Prospero Benefort and his daughter Fiametta in exchange for magically imbued artisan items, like a salt cellar that neutralizes poison and makes people tell the truth. Prospero's masterwork, a bronze statue of Perseus holding Medusa's head, sits beneath clay, waiting for metal to be poured in to make it real.

Unfortunately, this all gets delayed when a Mercenary captain, Lord Ferrante, betrothed to Sandrino's daughter arrives, and it is revealed he is quite the villain. Indeed, as Duke Sandrino prepares to call off the betrothal and exile Ferrante, he is instead killed during the betrothal dinner, leading to Ferrante's hostile take over of Montefoglia. As is Fiametta's crush, Uri, the Swiss Guard captain and model for Perseus. Fiametta and Prospero flee not long after Prospero destroys Ferrante's sprirt ring, a ring housing the soul of an unshriven person. In the case of this particular ring, the soul of Ferrante's infant.

Prospero ends up dying during their escape, and the inn keeper where Fiametta runs ends up putting the body in the smoke house with the hams, waiting for payment for the room. Thankfully, Thur, Uri's brother and miner from Switzerland, happens across her, and they begin to realzie their connection. Unfortunately, Ferrante's men catch up with them and run off with Prospero's unshriven body that's been smoking with the hams for a few days. Thur has a touch of his own magic, related to the Earth, and he talks to kobalds on occasion. Fiametta's magic is related to fire, so one can only assume if their child has an affinity for air, it will compose a song about "September".

Anyway, Fia and Thur escape to St. Joseph, and the Abbot Monreale, who licenses magicians in service to the church. As the story progresses, we find out that Ferrante's magician, Vitelli, has packed both Prospero and Uri in salt in preparation to bind them both into spirit rings. We also find out Vitelli was a former student of Monreale, who in his studies of dark magic wound up becoming consumed by it.

As stated above, while it's not quite as polished as some of her later novels, this is exceptionally well written and filled with narrative goodness. Bujold does a wonderful job of working around societal limitations on women during the period in granting Fia some autonomy in her life, even as she has to hide behind her male figures. Seriously. While known for her science fiction, her fantsy deserves a read by those who enjoy the genre.