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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 Renaissance 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 (with Sandrino's handsome—albeit pockmarked—Swiss guard captain Uri Ochs, upon whom Fiametta has an adolescent crush, as its model).

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 a sudden quarrel 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 miner — brother of Uri — 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:

  • The Alleged Steed: While on the run from Ferrante's men Fiametta and her father acquire a horse in a village (paying far too much for it), "a fat white nag that was over-at-the-knees, gray-headed, bewhiskered, and venerable". The swaybacked old horse winds up staying with Fiametta to the very end, becoming something of a running gag.
    Abbot Monreale must surely be a miracle worker beloved of God, for he had somehow forced the beast to trot uphill.
  • Animal Eye Spy: Abbot Monreale is able to cast a spell which enables him to use doves for surveillance. He can't actually see directly through their eyes, or hear directly through their ears; instead, a mirror is ensorcelled to show what the birds are seeing, while an object like a small tambourine made of parchment serves to transmit what the birds are hearing. Unfortunately, Niccolo Vitelli (Ferrante's own sorcerer) is able to detect the birds (or the spell which has been cast on them) and the bird spies have no more immunity to crossbow bolts than do ordinary un-magicked birds.
  • Apothecary Alligator: The workshop of Abbot Monreale includes a "dried and mummified crocodile" (although it's just stuffed in a barrel, not hanging from the ceiling), along with assorted books, papers, jars, bottles, and "mysterious little boxes with labels in Latin".
  • Badass Preacher: Abbot-and-Bishop Monreale (two offices — Abbot of Saint Jerome and Bishop of Montefoglia — one man) had been a soldier in his youth, before making a vow to dedicate his life to God after being severely wounded. Monreale is still quite prepared to lead the men of Montefoglia in a night assault, and is also a capable mage (albeit overmatched by a slain dark mage, turned into a demon and armed with the power of a very powerful spirit ring).
  • Banishing Ritual: In keeping with the book's Religion is Magic version of spellcasting, getting rid of a demon is as much a matter of Abbot Monreale giving the last rites to the soul of Prospero Beneforte (who is fully cooperating with the ritual) as it is of banishing Jacopo Sprenger's ghost-turned-demon.
  • Bedsheet Ladder: Of the clothing variety: Two "stretched-out silk hose legs" tied together to form an improvised rope (albeit from one cell to another cell on a lower level rather than all the way down to the ground). Turns out Lord Pia did not actually fly out the window like a giant bat after all. (Although Pia has befriended kobolds, who have the ability to draw iron bars into stone "like sinking a spoon into porridge", which undoubtedly helped the non-bat-sized Pia fit through the window of his cell.)
  • 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.
  • Blood Magic: Many spells involve drawing diagrams on the ground with chalk. But one especially potent spell (for animating metal statues by investing them with the spirit of a dead animal—or a dead person) requires the caster to draw the diagram in blood (and it must be their own blood).
  • 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.
  • Concentration-Bound Magic: After Monreale's sleep spell against Ferrante and Vitelli backfires, and Vitelli instead sends Monreale into a coma-like state of unconsciousness, Vitelli must make some continuous effort to maintain the sleep spell on Monreale. Vitelli is able to "divest" the spell, at least temporarily, by using a form of Device Magic — a piece of silk cloth over a small gold crucifix, over which Vitelli briefly concentrates while murmuring some incantation — allowing him to turn his concentration onto other matters. When this "spell-set" is forcibly disturbed, it not only breaks the spell, but also clearly causes Vitelli some degree of pain.
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: In the finale, Abbot Monreale sweeps the questionably-orthodox magical things Fiametta had to do under the Church's rug by attributing it all to the demon formerly known as Jacob Sprenger. It works.
  • Demon of Human Origin: Demons are ghosts, human souls which are unable to go on to God after death, and instead linger on in the world. Most such ghosts slowly fade away to nothingness, but a few are strong enough that they gain the ability to sustain themselves without any physical body or other material form, feeding on sin—seeking to increase anger and fear and despair—and thus becoming demons. Abbot Monreale greatly fears that Prospero Beneforte is in danger of becoming such a demon. In the climax of the book Jacopo Sprenger (briefly) becomes a powerful demon after his death.
  • 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.
  • Famously Mundane, Fictionally Magical: The physical form of Prospero Beneforte's magical saltcellar is taken directly from the Cellini Salt Cellar (as confirmed in an Author's Note at the end of the book). The real saltcellar, while considered an artistic masterpiece, is not known to have any magical powers.
  • Forced Sleep: Monreale and two of the monks from the abbey attempt a spell of "deep sleep" against Ferrante and Vitelli. The spell fails, and Vitelli is able to turn the tables and instead send Monreale into a coma-like state of unconsciousness.
  • Friendly Ghost: The ghost of Prospero Beneforte isn't precisely what you would call friendly — Beneforte was a proud and rather irascible man in life — but he is helpful (and even ultimately loving) to Fiametta, whose first word when he first appears to her is "Papa?".
    When Prospero Beneforte's ghost first manifests to Fiametta: I'm glad to see you....Weren't ghosts supposed to be fearful manifestations, instilling terror? But Master Beneforte looked so...himself. Impatient and annoyed, as ever.
  • 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.
  • Gentle Giant: One's first impression of Thur Ochs is that he is a very large young man, and quite strong — when he reached his current height and strength "everyone spontaneously began assigning the heaviest tasks to him". However, while Thur is by no means a coward (one of the first things we see him do is risk his life to save men trapped in a mining cave-in) he has no desire to be a soldier, not because of the risks to himself but because he hates the thought of sticking a sword into another human being. His first reaction to anyone he meets (even kobolds, considered by many to be basically demons) is to be friendly. His body language tends strongly towards the nonthreatening — he often hunches his shoulders or stoops down a bit so as not to loom so much.
  • Geometric Magic: Not all spells use this form of magic—some can be accomplished (by a mage, at least) with a simple word—but at least some more powerful spells involve drawing "sacred diagrams" on the ground with chalk (of different colors), along with incantations in Latin (and sometimes Hebrew). The chalk lines are said to contain the forces of the planets and their associated metals, along with sacred names written to compel spirits. If the chalk lines are disturbed mid-spell, it causes the caster physical pain; the chalk lines also cause a burning sensation in anyone else who touches them.
  • Good Shepherd: Abbot-and-Bishop Monreale is a devout but humane man of God, who genuinely does his best at every step to look out for all the people of Montefoglia (and is Christian enough to be sincerely concerned for the salvation of the souls of even his most dangerous enemies).
  • Groin Attack: Thur takes a knee to the groin from Ferrante (a much more experienced — and ruthlessly pragmatic — opponent). This rapidly takes Thur out of the fight, and he is stll struggling with the aftereffects for a considerable time thereafter.
  • 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 Renaissance 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 led 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.
  • Human Sacrifice: In a sense, the creation of any spirit ring involves this, since the power of such rings comes from binding the spirit of a dead person to the ring. Vitelli's plans for binding Uri involve an additional human sacrifice, of Uri's brother, Thur, which Vitelli calculates will be especially efficacious in binding Uri's spirit to the ring.
  • 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.
  • Latin Is Magic: Discussed (or rather thought about by a character). Spells often include Latin incantations, but when Fiametta is preparing to cast a spell to allow the slain Uri to temporarily speak through his brother's body, she thinks to herself that "the substance of the spell was not in the Latin" and wonders if the insistence by mages on the use of the Latin is merely "a device to keep power from the ignorant". She also muses that Uri had never learned to speak Latin anyway. In the end, she rather impulsively says "Uri, enter!" (presumably in whatever Italian dialect everyone in Montefoglia normally speaks), which momentarily horrifies her—she thinks she has spoiled the spell—but it works.
  • 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.
  • Locked in the Dungeon: After Thur is caught spying on behalf of Abbot Monreale (not to mention an improvised attempt at assassinating Uberto Ferrante) he is locked up in the dungeons of the castle of Montefoglia. He winds up a cellmate of Lord Pia, the former castellan (now held prisoner in the dungeons he was himself once the master of as Duke Sandrino's castellan); fortunately for Thur, Pia is able to help him escape before Ferrante and Vitelli can sacrifice Thur as part of the necromantic rites to create a new spirit ring.
  • Magic Is Mental: The book features several different sorts of magic (including Blood Magic, Geometric Magic, and Love Potions), but Fiametta simply "orders her thoughts to an instant of calm" before casting a (minor) spell with a single word; later, when she improvises a spell on the fly, she thinks to herself that a spell involves not just "pure will" but also "focus" and a proper symbolic structure, which she is able to conjure up without any sacred diagrams or magic artifacts — just inward resolution, and whispering two meaningful words (and those seem as much a matter of ordering her own thoughts as of any sort of "abracadabra").
  • Meaningful Name: "Beneforte" means "good strength." Fiametta conjures by her surname late in the book.
    • The Ochs (Ox) brothers are both burly and muscular.
  • Necromancer: Much of the most powerful magic in the book involves harnessing the souls of the dead (willingly or unwillingly), from the creation of the spirit rings of the title (which often although not necessarily involves enslaving the soul of a dead human being—including the enslavement of the soul of a murdered infant) to the creation of a Living Statue with the willing cooperation of the spirit which is animating it.
  • 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.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Lord Pia (the seemingly violently insane bat-obsessed castellan, now imprisoned in his own castle by Uberto Ferrante) seems to be a case of the "maybe more than a little crazy, but also playing it up for effect" variety of the trope. Pia's obsession with bats does date back to before his imprisonment (and is perhaps only a harmless eccentricity), but at the end of the book he is described as recovering from the "overstressed dementia" of the days of his imprisonment. He is nonetheless capable, even at his apparently craziest, of making and executing complex plans against his enemies. When he first meets Pia, Thur wonders if the castellan is really mad, or only pretending, or perhaps both at once.
  • Our Kobolds Are Different: In the book kobolds (also referred to as gnomes or "rock-demons") are brown-colored humanoids, two feet tall, with narrow chins, thin arms and legs, long fingers and toes, "joints like the knobs of roots", and pointed tongues. They live in the earth (and can move through soil and stone as if they were air) and have a strong affinity for metal. They also greatly desire milk (including human milk). Many miners distrust them, fearing they may play mischievous or even dangerous tricks, but they can be helpful when they feel like it, even putting ore in a miner's basket. In the climax of the story the protagonists are able to strike a bargain with them for their help; they don't help the humans for altruistic motives, but do faithfully keep their end of the bargain. The book's conception of kobolds is drawn from traditional European folklore; in an author's afterword, Bujold notes her kobolds came from a footnote in Herbert Hoover's translation of De re metallica, a 16th century treatise on the mining and refining of metals.
  • Perception Filter: Abbot Monreale uses a spell to make his magical listening devices not invisible (nor smaller, nor disguised as some other item) but merely "very hard to notice".
  • Public Domain Artifact: The novel features fictionalized versions of two of Benvenuto Cellini's works of art (in the book both the work of the fictional Prospero Beneforte): As noted above, the magical saltcellar's physical form is taken directly from the golden saltcellar made by Benvenuto Cellini, while Beneforte's great statue of Perseus is taken from Cellini's Perseus with the Head of Medusa.
  • Religion is Magic: Magic and religion are deeply intertwined in the book's setting. Magicians are licensed and regulated by the Catholic Church. Abbot-and-Bishop Monreale is not only in charge of this supervision of the local mages, but it's presented as perfectly natural for him (as a high-ranking Christian clergyman) to have both a strong interest in the theory of sorcery, and to himself be a mage of considerable abilities. Discussions of such concepts as the "spirit rings" of the book's title are done in explicitly theological terms.
  • Ring of Power: The "spirit rings" of the title. They derive their considerable magical powers from having the soul or spirit of a dead person bound to them. This can be a voluntary arrangement, with the ring's bearer promising to look after a dying man's family in exchange for the dying man's service in the afterlife, along with a promise to release the spirit from the ring when the bearer is nearing death, so as not to leave the ghostly servant permanently separated from God and thereby damned. It can also not be a voluntary arrangement: The soul of a murdered, unbaptized, unburied infant makes for an exceptionally strong spirit ring.
  • 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.
  • Truth Serums: Or rather, magical truth spell. Halfway through the book it is finally revealed that anyone who places pepper onto their tongue from the pepper receptacle of Master Beneforte's magical saltcellar is compelled to speak the truth.
  • Unfinished Business: Prospero Beneforte and Uri Ochs are unable to depart to the afterlife because the villains have their bodies and are plotting to carry out some very dark necromancy to enslave their souls in a pair of spirit rings. But both of them also have a great deal of unfinished business—Beneforte must see to his daughter's future, and also very much would like to see his great statue of Perseus finally cast in bronze. And Uri has an ardent desire to avenge the murder of Duke Sandrino. Both are finally able to depart to the afterlife when all those tasks have been completed, and when Abbot Monreale pronounces his blessing on them both.
  • 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.
  • Virgin Power: Fiametta complains to her father that this the real reason he doesn't want her to get married:
    Fiametta: All the good men will be taken, and you'll sit on me till I'm old and fat, just to keep me handy for your spells. "Bleed you a little into this new greenwood bowl, love, just a drop"—till I drop. Virgin's blood. Virgin's hair. Virgin's spit. Virgin's piss. Some days I feel like a magic cow.
  • Wizard Workshop: The workshop of Abbot Monreale, a magician as well as an abbot and a bishop, includes a "dried and mummified crocodile" stuffed in a barrel, assorted books, papers, jars, bottles, and "mysterious little boxes with labels in Latin".