The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold

By way of introductory remarks, I’d like to state that I found out about The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold, one of my favourite authors, by the purest luck which in itself says a lot about this book.

You see, among my various interests are historical disaster artists. One good example of the breed is Benevenuto Cellini, a renaissance Italian craftsman and lunatic. If you look up this fine gentleman on wikipedia, it mentions that Bujold wrote a book about him.

The Spirit Ring.

However, in the first of rather mild spoilers, it’s not really about him.

The centre of this story is one Fiametta Beneforte, the daughter and unofficial apprentice of master magician and artist, Prosper Beneforte (based on Cellini). She wants nothing more than to follow in his footsteps, even if the man has many flaws, but life gets very considerably in the way.

What goes wrong? That would be giving spoilers, even if they’re in the blurb. Suffice to say there is a mix of fleeing soldiers, black magic, and desperate last ditch attempts. And kobolds.

What I can say is that this book, Bujold’s debut as a fantasy author, feels subtly flawed. Dry is the word I used when struggling with the beginning, and it’s not a bad word, but I’m not sure it’s right. I think Bujold is at her best when her characters laugh often, and Fiametta mostly sees the world very seriously. Unlike Bujold’s other protagonists, there’s no wealth of experience and hurt with which to create introspection and doubt; she does have introspection, but her path is clear and the doubts she has to deal with are those of other people.

Now, after a slow start, I did find The Spirit Ring rather enjoyable. Bujold’s ability to write powerful scenes, suspenseful action, and vivid side-characters is fully on display. Fiametta’s sidekick, Thur, has a keener sense of the absurd once he enters the story, which helps me as well but the main thing is that once narrative momentum kicks in it’s a good story. Fiametta and Thur are both easy to root for. The ending has a real bravura quality.

Yet I couldn’t quite shake that feeling of the slow start, or it being flawed. Perhaps it’s because I compared it to Curse of Chalion or Paladin of Souls, where Bujold nails this sort of solemn, wryly humourous, introspective yet epic type of fantasy. Judging the apprentice piece compared to the masterwork rarely works well for the former. Or perhaps this is because this is something of an apprentice piece with uncertain pacing. Or perhaps because I don’t have sufficient sympathy for the tales of young people dealing with difficult fathers.

Whatever it is, it shouldn’t detract from my recommendation. Yes, The Spirit Ring left me wanting more, but it’s still an enjoyable book that finishes strong. While it has been forgotten a little due to dwelling at the back of an extremely strong backlist, that is not entirely deserved. So if you like renaissance Italy, alchemical magic, and determined young women, why not give this a go?


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