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Monday, August 17, 2009

The Spirit Ring, by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Spirit Ring is a fantasy novel, by Lois McMaster Bujold, set in Italy during the Middle Ages. The book was a Locus Fantasy Award nominee.

In this post, I intend to summarize the plot of this novel. For another summary, see the first link in this post.

The book is fantasy literature, in that some people have abilities that go beyond the normal senses, and the normal ability to manipulate objects. These people, in this book, are portrayed as magicians.

There are three main characters, and many characters which appear less often. Fiametta is a young woman. In addition to wishing for a good and loving husband, and some security in her life, she also wishes to be respected for her ability to practice magic. Her father, Prospero Beneforte, is such a magician. He is also a metalworker. With some help from Fiametta, he has created some amazing works of art on commission for Duke Sandrino, ruler of their city-state, Montefoglia. (Montefoglia is fictional. There are references to other, real, cities.) He could use some help in his metal work. One of the objects he is working on is a large statue, to be made of bronze. Uri Ochs, captain of Sandrino's guard, was the model for a clay statue, that is being used to make a mold for pouring the bronze for a metal statue.

Thur Ochs, Uri's brother, is a young man, a miner, living a few days' journey from the city. He is mostly ordinary, but does have the ability to find things. He knows, because of this special sense, where there are seams of metal ore in the mines. Thur is more tolerant of kobolds, small, nearly human-shaped creatures that live in the substance of the rocks, than most people. He advocates leaving milk for them to drink -- they can come out of rocks, and go into them -- and believes that they should be let alone. His brother, Uri, has been asking Thur to come to the city. The collapse of part of a mine, which nearly kills some of Thur's fellow miners, combined with the state of the mine -- it is almost mined out (although, if those in charge would listen to Thur, he could have found more ore) -- lead Thur to follow his brother's advice.

One aspect of Bujold's sub-creation is that the spirits of the dead can remain active, and interacting with normal, living people, for some time after death, if they have not received last rites, and their bodies are preserved. Such spirits can be useful to magicians, although doing so is dangerous, and a form of black magic, forbidden by the church. Beneforte has been working on the theory of such magic.

Beneforte and Fiametta are invited to a banquet at the palace. The occasion is the visit of Ferrante, a nearby ruler, who wants to marry Sandrino's daughter. But the occasion is disastrous. Ferrante kills Sandrino, and makes known that he plans to rule his own duchy, and also Montefoglia. Uri is also killed. Fiametta sees that Ferrante has a dead baby, kept in salt, with him in a box, undoubtedly used in black magic. She and her father escape to the countryside, but her father dies of a heart attack. Some of Ferrante's men take her father's body from her possession. She meets Thur, who is coming to the city with a pack train.

Fiametta has a magic ring -- not the spirit ring of the title -- that indicates that Thur Ochs is the man she should marry. At first, she rejects that idea, because of Thur's station in life -- a poor miner. As the book progresses, and she sees his bravery and intelligence, she changes her mind.

Fiametta, Thur, and others, go back to the city. They decide to enter the monastery, directed by Bishop and Abbot Monreale, and besieged by Ferrante's soldiers. (Monreale is the third main character.) The Abbot, a devout man, but with some knowledge of magic, and ability to perform some, is praying about whether to accept a truce with Ferrante. When Fiametta tells him about that man's use of a dead baby, in magic, Monreale sees that Ferrante cannot be trusted, and takes that knowledge as an answer to his prayer. He sends Thur into the city, and the castle, as a spy, with certain magic items to help him communicate what is happening back to Monreale. Thur goes, principally because he wants to find out what has happened to his brother.

In the castle, Thur is put to work as a metal worker. He learns that Ferrante has an aide, Vitelli, an evil man, expert in black magic. Vitelli wants to use the spirit of Fiametta's father in his evil work. He hopes to capture that spirit in a ring. He also wants to discover any notes that Beneforte had on the subject. Thur finds that his brother was killed, and that his body, like Beneforte's, is being preserved.

Thur is discovered. When he is, Monreale and Fiamette know of this, because of the magic communication devices Thur took to the castle. Vitelli destroys all of them, so Monreale can't find out any more about what is going on there. Fiametta feels that she must go to the city to help Thur. She ends up going into the city, but stays at her own house.

Thur, with some assistance from kobolds, is able to escape, and to bring his brother's body with him. He, guided by his ability to find, goes to Fiametta's house, with the body. Fiametta decides to undertake, with Thur's help, a difficult task, namely to invest the bronze statue with Uri's spirit. They hope that such a statue, which, if she is successful, should be animated for a short time, will be able to defeat Ferrante. Defeating Ferrante is crucial, because Vitelli is trying to use Fiametta's father's spirit to gain the power of a spirit ring, and, if he were to succeed, this would give Ferrante great evil power. Fiametta has never done anything like this, and Thur has never cast a statue. He is not sure that there are enough supplies available to do what needs to be done. Fiametta prays, asking God's help, and they proceed. Kobolds bring Thur metal from the castle, and help with the casting.

They are successful, and Uri inhabits the statue long enough that he leads an army of citizens to defeat and kill Ferrante. Vitelli, too, is killed. Monreale appears, having come from the abbey. He is there principally to offer the spirit of Vitelli an opportunity to repent, which opportunity is refused. Uri's spirit does repent.

Bujold's books are usually love stories, and this one is no exception. Fiametta realizes that she loves Thur, and they are married. Monreale not only marries them, but obtains a license for Fiametta to perform magic -- not evil magic, but magic for good.

I often don't summarize the plot of novels I post on, so as not to spoil the reading of them. The exception in this case is because, God willing, my next post will be on the question of whether or not The Spirit Ring is a Christian novel, and I need to set forth the proper background.

Thanks for reading.


George said...

Wow. A complex plot, although I believe extra complexity is added when a short summary of a longer novel is needed. I'm looking forward to your analysis, and will also be interested in reading about what qualifies a book is a Christian book.

You might not remember my time at SWU (lots of water under that bridge), but you taught me in a course about scifi literature. I remember the course and after all these years still enjoying scifi. I even remember the book I read and reported on: Ringword, by Larry Niven. Thank you, Dr. LaBar, for your impact on my life.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, George.

Yes, it's a complex plot.

I can't remember you, although I might do so if I knew your last name. I do remember Ringworld.

Thanks so much for commenting!