A stand-alone historical fantasy and Bujold’s first fantasy book.

Publication year: 1992
Page count: 370
Publisher: Baen
Format: Print

The setting for this story is sort of Renaissance Italy with magic.

Fiametta Beneforte is a fifteen year old girl who wants to be a mage and find her true love. She’s already a capable metalworker and when her father allows her to make her first independent metalworking, she puts into the ring a spell to find her true love. She already likes the local Duke’s guard Captain Uri Ochs but he turns out not to be her true love. Instead, Uri says that his brother might be a good apprentice for Fiamatta’s father, Prospero Beneforte. Prospero agrees and Uri writes a letter to his brother Thur.

Thur’s working in a mine in Switzerland. However, the mine is plagued by kobolds. One of them tells Thur that his future will be in fire and air, and not in the mines. Then disaster strikes and the mine is half submerged. Thur saves other men with heroic action but afterward he decides to become a metalworker-mage’s apprentice and leaves. He pays his way as a muleteer in a small caravan.

Prospero and Fiametta are invited to a party at the Duke’s castle. The Duke’s twelve year old daughter is getting engaged to powerful Lord Ferrante. Prospero hopes that he will get new and better paid commissions from the Duke and Fiametta is delighted to wear her mother’s finest velvet dress. Her Ethiopian mother died when Fiametta was eight so the girl didn’t really know her mother.

However, in the middle of feasting Lord Ferrante kills the Duke and his guard Captain. Fiametta and Prospero manage to escape with nothing more than the clothes they’re wearing. However, the excitement is too much to Prospero’s heart and his dies from a heart-attack leaving Fiametta without any money or protector.

While most of the setting is historical, Bujold has added working magic to it. The magic seems to be mostly done with rituals: words, gestures, objects, and diagrams drawn in chalk. The Catholic Church has a tight control over the mages; it issues licenses not only to magic use but also for apprenticeships. The Church has also an Inquisition which seems to especially concentrate in controlling women who use magic (what a shocker… not!). Scholars and mages seems to be educated by the Church and so they are men. Women are referred here as hedge witches. On the other hand, it seems that Prospero could have gotten a license to apprentice Fiametta but was too cheap to get it, so women seem to be able to do magic for commercial purposes.

The point-of-view characters are Fiametta and Thur, and for most of the book they have alternate POV chapters.

Fiametta is a strong willed, impatient, and impulsive. She’s also been told her whole life that she’s “just a girl” and should keep her mouth shut around her male betters. This is clear when she could have suggested ways to improve a magical ritual but instead says nothing. Her father calls her “stupid girl” and threatens to beat her but we don’t know if he’s ever actually beat her. She doesn’t cringe from him, so maybe it’s just a threat. Fiametta’s mother was dark skinned so she’s also darker skinned than the people around her. She’s a bit self-conscious about it.

Thur is a very gentle and honorable young man who tries to do the right thing. When he first sees her, he’s very taken by her and tries to help her. Unfortunately for him, things go awry and he isn’t able to help as much as he would have liked to. He also has magical abilities even though he’s never considered himself a mage: he can find things easily. This is a very handy ability.

The plot is pretty straight-forward once Fiametta and Thur realize what they must do. Lord Ferrante has taken over the castle and the lands, and is laying siege on the nearby abbey where people have fled. Ferrante has also stolen Prospero’s body and is going to use it in black magic. Of course, Fiametta can’t allow that and Thur is determined to help her. They hope that the abbey’s Abbot-Bishop Monreale can help them. Monreale is a former soldier and a skilled mage.

The book has a romance and a spell that finds a person’s true love. I wasn’t happy with the whole spell thing because it seems that lovers are predestined for each other instead of actually getting to know each other first. However, even though Thur immediately falls in love with Fiametta, she’s mortified that her spell brought to her a smelly muleteer who a stranger to boot. It also seemed to me that the spell is a self-fulfilling prophecy: once Fiametta knew that Thur was her true love, she started to think about him and pay attention to him.

The romance itself is very low-key and more realistic than is typical for fantasy these days. The characters even plan their future together instead of their lives apparently ending at the wedding. They think about setting up a metalworking shop and who works at what.

I didn’t like this book as much as Bujold’s Chalion fantasy books but it’s still good with a fast-paced plot and magic that actually has rules and makes sense.