Feb 13 2013 3:00pm

Magical Goldsmithing: Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Spirit Ring

Magical Goldsmithing: Lois McMaster Bujold's The Spirit RingIf Lois McMaster Bujold hadn’t written books that were so much better, I might like The Spirit Ring (1992) more. Maybe if somebody else had written it and I didn’t have such high expectations? It’s a book that I feel I ought to like more than I do. There are a lot of wonderful ingredients here: the feisty daughter of a goldsmith wizard who has learned both magic and goldsmithing, the miner who talks to kobolds, Renaissance Italy with magic, a giant statue that comes alive and saves the day. The trouble is that they don’t really have the vital spark that makes a book live. I want to like it. I have intellectual admiration for it. But as with The Hallowed Hunt there’s no spark. It makes it very difficult to talk about, and indeed I’ve been putting off writing this post.

First, this was clearly inspired by reading Cellini’s Autobiography, but despite Bujold adding magic and female characters, Cellini’s Autobiography is just better. All the same, the Cellini character is the best one, it’s a pity he’s killed early on. I cared more about what happened to his ghost than I did about what happened to the living characters. Reading the book this time, I thought the whole spirit ring thing was almost like a rehearsal for the central dilemma of The Curse of Chalion.

What’s awesome—the details of sculpture and magic and Renaissance courts and how the magic works. Cellini’s Perseus coming to life. Fiametta’s mother being from Africa. It would be possible to talk about this book in a way that really made it sound amazing by dwelling on the things that are amazing—oh, do people have problems with having female characters who do things in historical settings? Not this book. How about people of colour in whiter-than-white Renaissance Europe? Go Bujold. There’s a magic saltcellar that tells you when your food has been poisoned. The research, both into the history and the period details, is clearly spot on. The integration of the magic into the religious beliefs of the time has been done very smoothly, and starting from actual period beliefs about magic. It’s a kingdom level fantasy, just what I’m always saying we need more of.

This was only my second read of The Spirit Ring. I read it in the early nineties when it was a new paperback, and although I’ve read all of Bujold’s other books several times since then (I’ve read Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance three times already), I’ve never wanted to pick it up and read it again to complete my read. But the only thing that’s wrong with it is that it doesn’t have that spark, so I’m not very interested in Fiametta, Thur, or what happens to them. And that might just be me, and maybe lots of people are about to rush up and say this is their favourite Bujold. I’d really like to like it better. I’d also be interested to have a better understanding of why some books just don’t engage.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. 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. Lsana
I actually do know someone for whom this is one of her favorite Bujold books. I've never gotten a good explanation from her as to why: it just "clicked" with her in a way that it didn't for you or me. My opinion about this book is that it's pretty much forgettable. It's not bad, but it falls in the same category as many of the other fantasy books I read in college: entertaining while I was reading it, but left no impression after it was done.

It's an interesting question why some books have that magic spark and others don't. I've wondered that with regards to, for example, the Malazan books. Every time someone rattles off their virtues, I'll nod and agree, but none of that changes the fact that I just don't care what happens to any of these people. Similarly, I wasn't particularly invested in the fates of any of the characters in this book: I cared enough that I finished, but not so much that I thought about them afterwards. And yet I couldn't tell you why I cared so very much about Miles and didn't give a damn about the Spirit Ring crew. I suspect if I could tell you, I wouldn't be commenting on a blog, I'd be writing my own bestsellers!
Htet Htet Aung
2. hhaung
I've only read the spirit ring once so far and didn't have the urge to re-read it again yet. It's a delightful story but you are right that something seems to be missing. And may be it's because there isn't a continuation. Hallowed hunt is a standalone and so I didn't feel the urge to re-read it. Chalion is a series and there's something delightful in re-reading both. Vorkosigan's series is highly re-readable. I've re-read them so many times. But I haven't re-read "Ethan" or about the Quaddies. I just wanted to spend time with characters I love (Miles, Ivan, etc) and one-off characters are usually not on my beloved characters list... though I've re-read Shogun many times so I don't know.. there are single books that are highly memorable and re-readable.
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
I was talking the other day about shitty yet compelling writers, and how it's impossible to pin down _why_ they're compelling (the other part is easy). This strikes me as the reverse, competent yet non-compelling, and it's just as impossible for me to say why.
4. pCiaran
I read it in paperback when it came out and I remember loving it. But while I've probably picked it up once or twice since I don't remember much about it other then thinkingt wa grand. But I would be the same with every other Bujold book in that I reread them a lot.

Maybe the book gripping you or not is context specific, if a first time author had wrote that I'd probably reread it. Equally if there were more books I'd probably reread it when sitting down to go through the lot (which I do with the Vorkosigan books a lot as per above). While not quite stand alone books I have probably reread Falling Free and Ethan of Athos less then other Bujold books.

But when I'm in the mood for Bujold-fantasy I go straight to Curse of Chalion and follow it up with Paladin of Souls. If the craving is very bad I might go to the Hallowed Hunt.

In summary, I fecking love her writing.
Steve Oerkfitz
5. SteveOerkfitz
I guess I'm in the minority here but I've never been able to get more than 50 pages into a Bujold book. For me its like wading thru molasses.
Rob Munnelly
6. RobMRobM
@5 - Read the novella Mountains of Mourning. By 50 pages in, you'll be done and it is really, really good. (11th best novella all time, according to the recent Locus poll.) If you don't like that, perhaps Bujold is not for you.
7. RobinM
I remember enjoying the setting and the magic but this book doesn't stand out for me. I've never tried any of the non sharing knife fantasy by bujold. Should I give them a shot or skip them? I liked the sharing knife books well enough and love the Vorkosigan books.
8. pCiaran
@7 You need to read Curse of Chalion as soon as possible. They are just excellent.
David Goldfarb
9. David_Goldfarb
@5 & 6: Nothing is for everybody. I get that same "wading through molasses" feeling from Cherryh, who is adored by many people I respect (Jo herself not least).

@7: Agreed with @8, The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls get the highest recommendation. (The third book in the series, The Hallowed Hunt, is less successful, as Jo notes above.)
10. fizzel
Still, I prefer this to the Sharing Knife series. I like pretty much everything LMM Bujold have written, but I only read that once and I do not feel the need for a reread.
Pamela Adams
11. PamAdams
I'm also with you on this- the most interesting characters are the dead guys.
12. TomT
This falls into the middle of liking for Bujold's work. It is a good solid historical fantasy. As noted it isn't outstanding just good and solid. If it where from someone else I might consider it a very good book but Bujold has written better.

That said I do like the characters and happily grabbed it from Amazon the moment she uploaded it there as an ebook.

@6 & 7, not every book or every author is for everyone. Oddly I've never warmed up to the Game of Thrones series for example. Intersting fact about reading books is I found if I didn't absolutely hate them I would often take them down anywhere from 6 months to several years after buying them and read them often enjoying them. part of that is some books you just need to be in the mood for. There is a fantasy author I'm drawing a blank on right now who writes the most depressing celtically derived novels ever. I have to be in an exuberant bouncy mood to read one of them because otherwise I just can't finish it. Others I bounce off of because it isn't the right day and others because either the style, prose, or characters are just not for me.

So there is nothing wrong with someone not liking an author or book that you personally love to death. :) Insstead celebrate the differences because that person probably likes something you don't.
13. Lynnet1
@7 Someone forced me to tell them my favorite book the other day and I eventually (Because there are so many books! How can I be forced to pick just one!) settled on The Curse of Chalion. It is by far my favorite fantasy novel.
Kate Keith-Fitzgerald
14. ceitfianna
I enjoyed this one when I read it but its not my favorite of Bujold's, it actually read to me more like a YA novel than an adult one. I liked the setting and characters but I didn't hold onto my copy after I read it as I have all her others.

She's one of my favorite writers, but because she does so many things not everything clicks. I wasn't able to finish the first book of The Sharing Knife series, it was well written, had good worldbuilding and interesting characters but I wasn't invested in it. While Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, I read in two days, stayed up reading far too late one night and was late to work because of reading it.

I need to read Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls as I once started one of them at a con but never finished it. I enjoyed it and she does know how to do fantasy, but she becomes a slightly different writer for fantasy than for Vorkosigan. I hope that makes sense, because I think what I love about her is how she can give all of her books and stories ever so different feels. A Civil Campaign and Captain Vorpatril's Alliance are at heart romances while other Miles' novels are full on space opera, Barrayar is a political thriller, Memory connects to Le Carre and they're all the same writer.

This has gotten rather long, but I appreciate this take as I enjoyed this book as a read but it wasn't one I reread.
15. Rush-That-Speaks
Yeah, I also read The Spirit Ring once and wandered off, it's not just you. I keep thinking I should try it again and feeling very lackluster. I do wish I knew why it doesn't spark, but it doesn't, and there is no obvious reason that I can recall.

Sometimes, I think, stories wander off for a while on their way to the correct author (this is the only explanation I have ever had for a particular Peter S. Beagle short story which was obviously on a deep existential level intended to have been written by George R.R. Martin; it got lost). In which case The Spirit Ring is composed of material which encountered Bujold on its way to go be a real novel for Caroline Stevermer with When the King Comes Home.
16. JaneP
I would agree that Spirit Ring has a young adult feel with Fiametta's crush on Uri and career ambitions . I also purchased it back in 1993 and not have reread it as often as other Bujold ie. The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls. That said, I recently reread it during a Bujold readfest and I enjoyed it alot more than I remembered. I loved all the historical detail but this time I was alot more engaged with Fiametta and her determination to be more a 'magic cow', the development of relationship with Thur and their adventures. Maybe the missing spark for some people is that it does not have the sweeping nature of Chalion or the Miles books. The Spirit Ring adventure is on a smaller stage. Fiametta and Thur don't have close connections with emporers, royals or gods.
T Neill
17. Anarra
I find that Bujold is *better* with re-reading. It's as if her prose has to marinate for a while. Even her very best books (Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls and Memory, for me) get even better on the re-read.

I should go back and re-read the Sharing Knife books. They didn't engage me much the first time. I'll bet they are also better on a re-read.
Kate Nepveu
18. katenepveu
Rush-That-Speaks @ #15, In which case The Spirit Ring is composed of material which encountered Bujold on its way to go be a real novel for Caroline Stevermer with When the King Comes Home.

--that more than justifies the existence of _The Spirit Ring_ to me!
Kristoff Bergenholm
19. Magentawolf
Ooh, yes. I actually loved this book. I have the hardcover version, which I have no actual idea where or why I picked it up, but I've read it several times and quite enjoyed it.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Anara: I think almost everything is better with re-reading.
21. Joce
I love all the Bujold books except the sharing knife series but probably the reason Spirit Ring doesn't grab you is that Fiametta continually reacts to things rather than choosing to do things like Miles /Cordelia/Mark/Ivan or Lupe or Ista or even Fawn & Dag. Ingrey and Ijada are also reacting rather than choosing which is probably why Hallowed Hunt also doesn't grab you...
22. Nicholas D. Rosen
I'll grant that The Spirit Ring isn't Bujold's very best, but I still like it quite well. I bought it in hardcover as a grad student, and I think that was the first time I had bought a book in hardcover for entertainment, rather than a textbook, and I was not disappointed. I've read it and reread it, and it does click for me. If the great LMB ever writes the sequel she mentioned as a possibility many years ago, I'll rush out and buy that.
23. Danny Sichel
One of the interesting things I remember about this book is a comment that Bujold made about it in Dreamweaver's Dilemma: she had originally wanted to base the magic system on actual Renaissance-era ideas, but modern readers expect magic to follow conservation laws.

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