The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Set in a small Italian town in the Renaissance era (there are references to Lorenzo de Medici, so let's call it late 1400s), but a version where magic and metallurgy run together, The Spirit Ring follows Fiametta, the rebellious daughter of a mage, and Thur, the good-hearted miner who would be the mage's apprentice ... before their small world falls apart.
This novel is intimate - it's a story intricately bound to its place and people, where the acceleration of events grows naturally from those before, and where the two main characters get drawn up into the affairs of politics and war ... but always with a tight focus on the place where Fiametta grew up. The first forty or fifty pages are fairly low on conflict but still interesting enough to hold the attention, and the pay-off is more than worth it: the unraveling is all the more horrifying for how deeply I experienced Fiametta's world, and a lot of the little elements that seemed simply like worldbuilding or character introduction prove unexpectedly relevant later.
The stakes are visceral and personal here, and the two narrators both intensely likeable and very different. If I have any critique, I'm not really satisfied by the way the love story plays out. I'm glad that they don't waste time mooning or being distracted at inappropriate moments (ohhh, I hate that in SFF/romance crosses), but this goes a bit far in the other direction to make it feel a bit pragmatic and not wholly convincing. There's also a few confusing turns in the denouement that felt a bit like, "one more thing, really?"
All that said, this is a wonderful book. The details are absorbing and the cross between history and magic perfect.
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