Magical Goldsmithing: Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Spirit Ring

If 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.


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