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Literature / The Spirit Ring

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The Spirit Ring is a fantasy novel by Lois McMaster Bujold. It is set in a Historical Fantasy version of medieval Italy, where magic is real and the Church watches over its use to make sure it is used for the benefit of others. Fiametta Beneforte, only child of master mage Prospero Beneforte, has long tried to convince her father to train her as a proper apprentice in the crafting and enspelling of magical artworks, to little avail. Master Beneforte is consumed instead with his masterwork, a grand statue of the legendary hero Perseus, commissioned by his patron the Duke Sandrino of Montefoglia.


Everything goes wrong when Lord Ferrante of Losimo comes for an engagement ceremony to Sandrino's daughter, which ends with Ferrante murdering the Duke in cold blood and taking the city by force. Fiametta and her father barely escape, only for Master Beneforte to die defending her from Ferrante's soldiers. But Fiametta knows Ferrante's dark secret: he employs profane magics that can chain ghosts to his will, and he seeks to capture Beneforte's spirit for a new, powerful ring.

Enter Thur Ochs, a Swiss man come south to apprentice to Master Beneforte. Instead he finds himself caught up in the fight for Montefoglia, joining Fiametta and the monks of the monastery in opposing Ferrante's worldly and sorcerous ambitions.


This novel contains examples of:

  • Benevolent Boss: Despite his callous ruthlessness, Lord Ferrante is actually well-loved by his men because he knows the life of a common soldier and treats them well. He feeds his men well, pays out promised rewards and bounties (and offers plenty), and (mostly) favors discipline rather than declaring You Have Failed Me. Though he's not above "inspiring" outside contractors (in case they're spies) with Death by Irony.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The enchanted saltcellar which Beneforte had made for the Duke. The salt-holder was enchanted to make any salt taken from it purify poison. The question of what the pepper-holder was enchanted to do is rather deftly dodged until it's finally tested by the villains, Ferrante and his secretary Vitelli. The pepper makes anyone who eats it speak truth, which reveals Vitelli's true name - Jacopo Sprenger, a practitioner of the dark arts long believed dead.
    • Master Beneforte's much-obsessed-over statue of Perseus.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Ferrante is clearly deeply upset by the death of his groom when he's attacked by a group of drunk bravos in the streets, and not because it somehow makes him look bad.
  • Functional Magic: A form of Rule Magic relying on an Inherent Gift, where mages can perform spells directly but it is straining to do so. More powerful and enduring spells can be cast by placing them into specially crafted items, usually metal, such as rings and statues (Device Magic). There is also a form of Theurgy in the darkest magics, which require binding the spirits of the recently-dead to items of power, and keeping the preserved corpse somewhere nearby.
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  • Historical Domain Character: Several characters are based loosely upon historical figures, in whole or in some small part. Master Beneforte is based off of Benvenuto Cellini, including their mutual masterworks of a statue of Perseus; while Lord Uberto Ferrante has a noteworthy resemblance to the life story of Ferrante I Gonzaga, a condottiere (professional mercenary leader) who married and bought his way into the Italian nobility. Niccolo Vitelli's name and comments he makes on the nature of rulership suggest he might be a barely-fictionalized version of Niccolo Machiavelli but he turns out to be a dark sorcerer version of Jacob Sprenger.
  • Historical Fantasy: The setting is the fictional city-state of Montefoglia in medieval Italy, where the main difference is the presence of magic, whose use is policed by the Catholic Church. Magic is mostly restricted to enchanted items, allowing certain conveniences but keeping it from being a war-winning superweapon.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Ferrante's secretary and pet sorcerer Niccolo Vitelli is Jacopo Sprenger, AKA Jacob Sprenger, one of the men credited with writing the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, written in the late 15th Century with Heinrich Kramer. In truth, Sprenger's supposed authorship is suspect, with Kramer likely having added the other man's name after Sprenger's death to prop up his own work. Here, his research lead him to dark magic.
  • Hope Spot: At the climax, the evil wizard's attempt to magically disable the Living Statue results in a No-Sell, but this promptly flips back on the heroes, as the wizard's necromantic dabblings had gotten him to the point where his physical demise made matters worse.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Master Beneforte is egotistical, greedy, and often mean (though not outright cruel) to his daughter Fiametta, and is never without a vicious word denigrating anyone he considers a rival. Even so, he does love his daughter and there are clear signs that his "greed" is the need of a man whose work is costly and who is trying to put together a good dowry so his daughter may marry comfortably. He even laments that the only dowry he may be able to offer is his skills, taught to Fiametta to profit any husband she may take.
  • Living Statue: At the climax, a bronze statue is temporarily inhabited by the spirit of the dead man who was its model, in order to lead an army to save the city while molten-hot.
  • Love Potion: Averted — Fiametta tries to create a love ring, but her father explains that the spell only reveals true love, not compels it, and that magically induced true love is a paradox. Abbot Monreale later reveals it's not even as simple as that. The spell does work, just not on who Fiametta intended it for.
  • Meaningful Name: "Beneforte" means "good strength." Fiametta conjures by her surname late in the book.
    • The Ochs (Ox) brothers are both burly and muscular.
  • Not Brainwashed: Sorcerers can attach the spirits of the recently deceased to inanimate objects and compel them to do their bidding. The heroine decides to skip the compulsion in favor of asking nicely, leading to an unexpected failure when the bad guy tries to destroy her animated statue by unbinding the animating spirit.
    Uri: You cannot release me. I am not bound.
  • Shooting Superman: In the climax. All right, the first vat of burning oil poured on the Living Statue of molten bronze is an acceptable result of soldiers resorting to training in a stressful situation. However the second and third vat used while said statue is laughing at them...
  • Took a Level in Badass: The exact moment Fiametta levels up is clear on the page.
  • Villainous Valor: At the climax, the Big Bad fights an animated red-hot metal statue with a sword. Even the heroine is awed by his courage.


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