January 08, 2014


One of my goals for the year is to read more books that are older. I love new books as much as anyone, but some of the VERY best library finds are from times past, and just because they don't have a kicky new cover (READ: headless fit torso, or Pretty Caucasian Girl In Gown) or a publication date within the last five or ten years doesn't mean they're not good books, or even diverse books. This book was first published in 1992, went out of print, and was picked up again in 2000.

I've been a fan of The Bujold, ever since the Vorkosigan sagas and after I wept my way through her CHALION trilogy (the second of which won a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and was nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and Locus Fantasy Awards in 2002), this one-off fantasy was a nice surprise. This book wasn't marketed as YA literature, but the teen protagonist says teen enough for me, and I know my fifteen-year-old self would have loved the adventure and the drama and the quest for True Love (yes, DO imagine the priest from The Princess Bride movie, thank you).

As always with Sword and Sorcery books from the 80's/90's... the covers... oy. The covers. The hardback of this book is dire, with its dark background and scowling ring - but you can't say it's not straightforward. It's called THE SPIRIT RING, and look - a ring. End of story. The flying ring on the backdrop of somewhat melty looking stone buildings on the paperback - and the evil, toothy frog? Demon? Thingy? - is just as bad. Neither of them evokes the beauty and artistry of medieval Italy or seems to be about jewelry smithing or diverse characters, and neither of them says, "pick this up, younger readers! There are teen characters!" No... the cover shrieks something else entirely... but, never mind. It's what's between the covers that counts.

Concerning Character: Fiametta is a girl disregarded on all sides. It's bad enough that since she's "only a girl," her father barks at her, orders her to do, unpaid, twice the work of his apprentice, yet can't be bothered to teacher her any magic, despite his being a mage of some strength. Good thing she can get into his notes and books and figure it out for herself. In this medieval, parallel-universe-Italy setting, Fiametta is socially in a fragile position. As a girl whose barely remembered mother was a Moorish woman, or possibly Ethiopian, Fiametta only has her clothes and jewelry to remembers her, she's been left with a legacy of dark skin, wild black curls, and a sharp and curious mind. Uri, the soldier she likes, doesn't take her seriously as a woman, and won't even put on the magical ring she casts and enchants to reveal to her her true love. Her father, Master Beneforte, an impatient, perfectionist and proud man, knows his daughter's dreams, and disregards them in favor of criticizing her and dismissing her hopes. Fiametta despairs of ever having the life she wants...

Meanwhile in a tiny village in the hills, Swiss copper miner Thur Ochs plods along in his father's footsteps, doing the work for which some think his God perfected him. His wide shoulders, big hands, and stong-as-an-ox constitution make him a natural for dirty work, hard work, and work that doesn't require wit. Thur wants to be more than a miner - desperately. He'd love to do anything else, but his brother's offers to find him a place as a soldier don't appeal - though a big man, Thur is gentle. Their father died in the mines, but Thur can't think of another way to support his mother in their tiny cottage, and she's so lonely, he doesn't want to leave her to find something else. However, Thur has just made a startling discovery -- the kobolds in the mines, which every miner fears, not only see him, but they talk to him. They warn him that if he stays down in the cold and dark, he'll die. An accident in the mines convinces him of this, and the wheel of destiny turns...

As a master mage and metal smith, Master Beneforte is entitled to pride in his position - he's worked hard for what he has, and though he's come to the attention of the Inquisition for past...indiscretions, for now, his magic is fully white, and approved of by the Church. Fiametta is proud of him - but his swelled ego blinds him to much, including the brilliant daughter right in front of him, and the dicey political situation in the ducal household, who is his patron.

With a wedding gift of a magical salt cellar in hand, expecting gold and loud acclaim, Master Beneforte and Fiametta crash a dinner party meant to celebrate the Duke's daughter's betrothal to the wealthy and powerful Lord Ferrante, a Lord from another city-state who brings with him an honor guard of beautifully dressed troops and attendants, who look a bit like bravos to Fiametta. Ignored in favor of higher class guests, the Benefortes are seated far away from the Duke. Unfortunately they're perfectly placed, however, to witnesses his murder. As the guards cry treachery, all hell breaks loose. Swords are flying, guests are fleeing, and an overturned table reveals the evidence of black magic at work. Having seen too much, the Benefortes are fleeing for their lives. Too late, Fiametta finds out just how much of a mage her father used to be...

With her hometown invaded and its citizens on the run, Fiametta and her destiny collide. Of course, who ever recognizes destiny when they see it? And, enough with the woo-woo stuff -- when there's real work to be done, it takes heart, faith, bravery, and, yes, True Love, to win the day. As sword-and-sorcery tales go, this one is a solid and entertaining read, and while it won't change your world, it will certainly make you smile.

WARNING: Offer void across time lines. Be Careful What You Wish For. Any magic rings you put on may have an adverse effect on your fingers, your life, or the lives of others. Your mileage may vary. This novel contains people of color in a medieval setting. This is not an anomoly; people of color were not invented during slavery, but were free merchants, traders, teachers and doctors, minding their own business throughout the world. No, really. Any attempt to read books while operating heavy machinery will end in tears.

I picked this book up at our public library. You can find your copy of THE SPIRIT RING by Lois McMasters Bujold online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

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