Mar 23 2011 11:08am

Animal souls: Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt

The first time I read The Hallowed Hunt it was not the book I was looking for and I was disappointed in it. It’s set in the same world as The Curse of Chalion (post) and The Paladin of Souls (post). But while it’s the same world and the same gods, it’s set in another part of the world, Chalion is barely mentioned and it has no overlapping characters. It may (by analogy to our history) be set hundreds of years before the other books, there’s no internal way of telling. These books are each stories of one of the gods, and this is the book of the Son of Autumn, god of hunting and fighting and young men. The first two books feature demons, this one has entangled animal souls. It also has much more conventional chacters—Cazaril and Ista are older people who have failed at their early careers and are making mid-life changes, but here we have two young people. We’re given time to learn about Chalion before it is at stake, here we’re thrust into the Weald and not given time or reason to care about it. There are some wonderful moments here, but even coming back to it now knowing what to expect I think it’s a weaker book than the others.

Ingrey is a man whose father bound a wolf-soul to his when he was a teenager. This is illegal and heretical, but he has been allowed to live because he was a victim, not a perpetrator. When he dies, he will be permanently dead, because his soul is contaminated. While he lives he works as a troubleshooter for Hetwar, a royal advisor. As the book begins, he is sent to investigate the death of a prince. The prince has been killed while attempting just such another heretical binding, but he was killed by his would be sacrifice, a girl called Ijada, who now has a leopard soul bound to her. Things are complicated, and everything connects back to a battle four hundred years before and the souls bound that need to be freed.

The end of this book is wonderful, and fits thematically very well with the two other books in this world. It really is terrific, beautifully written, one of the best things Bujold has ever done. The problem is getting to the end. I don’t find Ingrey a very appealing companion, and we spend the whole book in his head. He has his wolf and his gloom, but he never really comes alive for me. He has no spark. Cazaril and Ista are both real and appealing in ways that Ingrey never touches. He falls in love with the equally colourless Ijada and I am hard put to care. If I liked Ingrey I know I’d like this book much better, and I made a real effort to like him this time through, but it was hard going and I never quite did it. He feels distant, much flatter than Bujold’s usual characters.

I also don’t find the Weald as interesting as Chalion—it’s medieval Germany, and much more familiar than Spain on the edge of the Renaissance. So it’s a more ordinary place. The complication of animal souls seems unnecessary at first—and it requires large amounts of investigation and infodumping that slows the story down. I think there’s something very odd about the pacing because it seems both too fast and too slow—that we’re thrust in at the beginning with too much action, and then everything slows down too much until we get to the race to the end. There are things that seem to exist only to make the plot work—usually with Bujold I can’t see the plot wheels turning, but here I can hear them creak.

There are some lovely things here. There’s a polar bear that a prince is trying to exchange for a priest. (But Dorothy Dunnett did this same historical anecdote better.) The animal souls, once the point of them is clear, are cool. There are some wonderful mystical bits with the Son. There’s Hallana, far and away the most interesting character in the book, saint of the Bastard and of the Mother, distributing chaos all around her. There’s the end, which is absolutely wonderful, demonstrating how well Bujold can write that she can pull off something like that.

But this remains my least favourite Bujold book by a long way. I’m sorry. I’d like to like it. And if she writes any more books in this world I’ll be buying them, because I do like what she’s doing with the gods. I’ll be buying her whatever she writes, she’s one of my favourite writers. But there’s something muted about this book.

Oh, interesting trivia point. My Eos first edition hardcover says it was designed by Iva Hacker-Delany—that’s Samuel Delany’s daughter, grown up to be a book designer.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. JoeNotCharles
This was the book where I spotted the author mandated romantic interest at her introduction and said, "Oh, this again." In Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls the author mandated romances were introduced more organically, but seeing it done so bluntly here made them seem clumsier in retrospect - because of course the books all follow a pattern, but unlike the workings of the gods and spirits, the pattern doesn't have anything thematically to do with the books, it's just that Bujold wanted to write romances so she shoehorned them in.

It rather spoiled The Sharing Knife series for me, since Fawn saw Dag and I thought, "What, again?" But of course in Sharing Knife this was the whole point of the book, and not an add-on. I just wish she'd written that series first to get the "boy sees girl and vice versa, and it is obvious to the reader that they will end up together even though it doesn't work out that neatly in real life" story out of her head instead of having it contaminate this book.
2. LizardBreath
Exactly. This book has all sorts of great bits in it, but it doesn't gell properly. (I wondered, reading it, if Bujold had changed the plot drastically midwriting, and not successfully smoothed out the details -- Ingrey's boss (I can't remember his name) shows up briefly, and seems as if he should be very important. And then he just isn't.)
Mary Decker
3. Ki
The Hallowed Hunt is actually my favorite Chalion book, heretical opinion though this may be. (Perhaps it's because I'm still in my 20s; I loved both Cazaril and Ista but didn't connect with them as readily as with Ingrey and Ijada.) And I could totally believe the romance, since I myself had a crush on Ingrey.

My favorite bit has always been the prince's funeral, when the polar bear breaks loose and Ingrey meets the Son and uses his weirding voice: it's both humerous and heart-rending, a combination at which Bujold is very, very good.
4. Megaduck
My problem with this book (And Paladin of Souls a little as well) is that the gods become so much MORE talkative. Ingery has a direct face to face conversation with the Son, the Bastard whispers in his ear, ect. It got to the point were I was asking myself what happened in the first book where the daughter only had two lines tops and that was after the main charecter was DEAD.

It sort of pulls back the mystery for me.

I actually liked Ingrey. He was the dark and brooding swordsman and he had to grow out of it. I thought that charecter arc was good. Injana never did anything for me but my favorite part was right at the begining when Ingrey arrives to investigate the mystery.

I also felt Ingrey was always on the defensive all the time. He's very much a pawn and is never really proactive. Cazaril and Ista were both activly trying things to solve the problem but it never seems that Ingrey does much besides wander around lost and have things happen.

It does amuse me that so far none of the gods chosen have been the proper age or sex. The Daughter chose a middle age man, the basterd chose a middle age woman, and the son chose a young woman. It makes the think the Father book will be about a young woman and the mother book will be about a young man.
5. Lsana
The progression of the Chalion books baffeled me.

We started with Chalion, which I thought was a great novel, but a stand-alone novel. It needed no sequel, but it got one, and I must admit, a pretty decent one. Then we moved to Paladin that seemed to be the start of a new series about Ista and her band of demon hunters. It did need a sequel, but it didn't get one. Instead we got this.

I won't say Hallowed Hunt is my least favorite Bujold book (that "honor" goes to the first Sharing Knife book), but it is the one that most dissatisfied me. I was expecting something I didn't get, the plot seemed to leap from one point to another without really settling on anything until the final chapters (it's hard to get invested in the plot when you can't figure out what it is), and the ending deeply offended my sense of justice. Perhaps it is unfair of me, but it doesn't seem right that the murdering prince gets to have his soul go to heaven while the innocent victims, Ingrey, Ijada, and the princess whose name I forgot, all have to wander the world until they lose all sense of identity. The whole "at least it's peaceful" didn't really make up for it for me.
Naomi Libicki
6. AetherealGirl
The thing that interfered with my enjoyment of this book was when Ingrey told his boss, with his weirding voice, "Tell the truth." I kept waiting for that to have unintended consequences and it never did. It drove me batty for the rest of the book.
7. Lynnet1
Megaduck, I had that same problem. I loved Chalion because it was one of very few fantasy novels that had a religion that you could conceivably see in the real world. It was a world in which it was possible to be an atheist (without needing to be wilfully blind and/or stupid as well). After Paladin, that isn't possible anymore, and Hunt continues in that progression. It makes me sad.
Mimi Epstein
8. hummingrose
Oh, I'm so glad it wasn't just me; I picked this up recently as my first non-Vorkosigan Bujold and thought--not that it was awful, exactly, but that it really wasn't very good. Since then I've been leery of trying the rest of her fantasy, so now I know to try again!
Sean Arthur
9. wsean
Yeah, not my favorite Bujold. Didn't hate it, but not my favorite.

I think what my less-favored Bujold books (this, Sharing Knife, Ethan of Athos) all have in common is that I was expecting/wanting one thing, and got another. I wanted this story to be another Chalion or Paladin... and it just wasn't.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Wsean: That's what I thought was my problem with this, except that even reading it again knowing what I was getting, I still found it thin.
11. Elaine Thom
Like others I was originally disappointed and puzzled by HUNT. There were some wonderful bits, but it wasn't gelling for me. Then someone - probably on Usenet - described it as 'the Ivan book"; Ingrey as Ivan in a different setting, which caused me to give it another chance, and it's grown on me ever since. I like Ingrey, who doesn't want to be special but is. We see him coming to terms with it, and I like that arc. I really like Hallana and Jokol and ... oh, whathisname, the other saint. Even Hetwar and the Prince Heir.

On specific complaints
My problem with this book (And Paladin of Souls a little as well) is
that the gods become so much MORE talkative. Ingery has a direct face to face conversation with the Son, the Bastard whispers in his ear, ect.

The gods being so talkative to Ingrey is clearly because of what his animal spirit is. Ijada doesn't get the same because her animal spirit was from a normal animal. Ingrey is shaman holding the animal spirit of a great beast. A very great beast, given the glimpses we have of its memories.

On the possibility of Ingrey being left to fade after death:
I hd the definite impression the saint was going to work towards reviving the process of binding animal spirits to humans so Ingrey mayn't be stuck in the end. (Ingrey's pointing out that the gods were certainly using him seems to have had an effect.) But it's left undecided because that wasn't what the story was about. At any rate I saw hope that Ingrey and the others wouldn't be left wandering the spirit world cold and homeless. The gods, we are shown quite clearly, will go to great lengths to salvage souls. I don't think they would willing leave Ingrey, Ijada and possible others hanging out to dry if they could avoid it.

I'm not sure Ingrey is that much more of a pawn the Caz, actually, although it's been a while since I read either. Both are dropped by gods into situation where they don't know the problem, have to figure it out and wander around till they do the right thing.
12. Kvon
My least favorite is still The Spirit Ring. Like The Hallowed Hunt, it's main characters don't have the spirit and heroism that I find in most of Bujold's characters. I did like this one better on reread, knowing a bit better where the plot was going, but when the best characters are the minor bits, I think there's a problem. (I remember the Bastard/Mother saint, and the polar bear with his handler.)
13. Hatgirl
Oddly enough, I never had a problem with the Obvious Romantic Interest aspect of the Five Gods books. It's pretty clear that as a reward for helping the gods out, they steer you in the direction of your One True Love. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me. But The Sharing Knife series didn't sit so well with me. In LMB's other books they find their one true love and kick ass. In The Sharing Knife series they find true love and set up house. Not really my cup of tea.

As for the Ingrey thing... I felt a lot of sympathy for him. He'd spent most of his life being told he was a creepy, soulless freak. Of course he would be reluctant to get involved in supernatural goings-on.

@Elaine Thom Exactly! It's pretty clear that Ingrey+UberWolf was a very rare occurance, and that the gods usually don't have a chance to be that chatty.

The Hallowed Hunt is my least favourite of the Five Gods books, but that is very different from it being a bad book. If I was shipwrecked on a desert island and found it washed ashore with me, I would be very happy indeed.
14. OtterB
I found I liked The Hallowed Hunt better on the reread than I did in the first pass. Ingrey is a very self-contained character, and he is very quiet. The color in this book doesn't come from him; it comes from Hallana and Jokol, and they and the peak scene were what I liked. But what I decided on my second (or maybe third) read was that Ingrey was exactly the kind of person he ought to be, given his history. He lives at the risk of having his permission for continued existence revoked, should he show any signs of letting the wolf within slip its leash. He was dropped in this horrible situation, he has always believed, by the father he loved and admired. He went through months of abuse, beatings and dousings in cold water and so forth, trying to free him from the beast spirit. It didn't succeed in freeing him, but it did by G*d teach him control. The wonder is that he has so much humanity left to be rediscovered, not that it's locked down tight.

Ijana reminded me of Ekaterina. She is a woman who just wants a normal, typical life for her age and her class, and has to grow into something much stronger.

It's not my favorite of the Chalion books, but only because I love the other two so much.
15. 12stargazers
I recall that over on her web site's list serve Bujold said that she set out to write a full-on romance with this book, but Ingrey's nature and local politics more or less hijacked the plot. Having read the book a few times and knowing what tight third person does to plot, the biggest problem with the book is that Ingrey didn't see himself as a romantic hero and had no thought of ever deserving a Happily Ever After. Despite the fact that he doesn't seem inclined toward introspection, I still think of him as an aging Angst-Boy with all that implies. Plus, Ijada is not a "some day my prince will come" kinda girl - which is why she managed to survive in the first place.

The next biggest issue is that Bujold was still trying to figure out how to write romances set in a fantasy universe rather than a fantasy with a romance sub-plot. I read paranormal romances, and it's rare to find equal development in both the world building as required by SF/F and the romance building as required by Romances. One or the other takes presidence. Hallowed Hunt clanks in very similiar ways to paranormal romances.
16. jandore
I liked Hallowed Hunt -- more than I liked Paladin of Souls, actually, even though I can see it's rougher around the edges. I thought the worldbuilding was really neat, and I liked Ingrey (though I think some other commenters have a point when they say he could have been in sharper focus; occasionally his arc reminded me a bit too much of Cazaril's). I liked the slow pulling back of the mystery, the sense of a battered culture trying to thread its way between past and future, and I fully agree with Jo that the climax was brilliant.

But yeah, the plot puddles in the middle. And I hope Bujold comes back to the question of Ingrey's soul, and the traditions of the Weald; the ending of the book leaves me with the sense that some part of the tradition is going to be recovered, but it would be nice to see how this develops down the line in Cazaril's day.
Pamela Adams
17. PamAdams
I'm on the 'liked it, but not as well as Chalion/Paladin' side of the street. Average for Bujold is still better than 98% of what's out there. My favorite line- "I admit, only Ingrey kin Wolfcliff woiuld ignite with lust for a woman who bludgeons her lovers to death, but for you, that's not a deterrent, it's a lure!"
Gillian A
18. GillianA
Somewhere I have seen Bujold write that with Ingrey, a young man from a high caste family, she was actively trying to avoid recreating a character like Miles Vorkosigan. She certainly succeeded with that aim, but possibly was trying a bit too hard. Maybe a number of people find it hard to like Ingrey because, unlike Miles, he does not have lashings of charm. I also kind of wonder if she liked Ingrey much herself as I have several times seen her describe him in interviews etc as 'bully-boy Ingrey' etc, a description that I personally find rather hard to connect with.

Personally, I am in the group that liked this book, but not as much as Chalion or Paladin. I've pretty much come to the conclusion that Chalion is one of the most nearly perfect books I've ever read, so I still like Hallowed Hunt a good deal.
19. bjvl
I'm finding the repeated critique of The Sharing Knife series quite fascinating. One of the things we discussed on the Bujold e-list is that Lois likes to test genre, and that the TSK books are Romance novels--

--and that SF&F readers *loathe* the romance genre. :) And Romance readers tend to loathe what we SF&F readers would call "pure" fantasy or science fiction.

TSK books really violate SF&F genre expectation. That tends to turn folks off.
20. Rose Lemberg
Bujold enjoys writing male viewpoints (I suspect they are less painful for her than female viewpoints), but she is not very big on writing what is basically canonical masculinity PoVs. Both Miles and Cazaril are very far from your manly man archetype – Miles because of his disability, Cazaril because of his difficult life story and humility (a character trait that much endeared him to me). Within Hallowed Hunt, Learned Oswin came closest to Cazaril in terms of character. Hallana, of course, completely steals the show – it is very clear to me that Bujold’s sympathies lie with these more mature, more complex, more canonical-to-Bujold characters. Much as I love Jokol, I don’t see her writing a Jokol-book, but either Hallana or Oswin would be wonderful as PoV characters. But she chose Ingrey, and I feel that with him she tried to edge closer to that canonical masculinity – a brooding non-bookish would-be-king. I have reread this book three times just to get to that climactic scene again – it is very good; but its power, too, comes not from Ingrey. It comes from the warriors’ loyalty, the hallowed kingship, the saints, even the antagonist – Ingrey and Ijada do not feel vivid to me in that scene. I wanted to love Ingrey. In the end, I cannot. Bujold produced a character she doesn’t always like; he feels to me uneven within himself. His inner journey lacks the power it could have held if she was fully committed to him, bullying and all. His passions and pains fell flat for me.
And this is why I am apprehensive about the Ivan book.
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
Rose: She does Ivan very well in A Civil Campaign. And in the little bit at the end of Cryoburn. I think of Ivan-POV as being in a constant state of suppressed panic, trying to be an innocent bystander but standing too close, not wanting to give hostages. That's the kind of POV Bujold does very well -- I don't think it has to do with gender. Ethan works, and so does Dag.
Joseph Blaidd
22. SteelBlaidd
Hey, some of us like romance.

While I agree that Hunt is the weakest of the Five Gods books i like Ingrey. One just has to meet the characters where they are and Igrey for all the complications of his cicumstances is a very simple man. He and Roic have a lot in common I think.
23. tuppeny
All three of these books seem to me to be about forms of betrayal. In this one the betrayal is just more open. It feels very raw on the nerve endings.
I do adore the bear and Jotul. Really wish we could get more of a glimpse of their part of the world. And I feel for that poor priest sent off in their longboat.

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