There are books that are fun and exciting to read. There are also books that explore ideas in depth, providing commentary on some of the passions of human existence. Sometimes a book can be both of those things. The frequency with which Lois MacMaster Bujold is able to accomplish that with her books is astounding.
The Hallowed Hunt appears to be equal parts fantasy thriller and romance story but that is just a cover for what it really is: an exploration of forgiveness, redemption and mercy.
Bujold has a powerful ability to immediately introduce likable characters then throw them into a plot that grips the reader and drags them through without giving time to stop and look around. The fascinating thing about her stories is that she peppers them with details about the world, culture, and history that can easily go unnoticed because the plot is so gripping that anything extraneous falls out of focus.
The Hallowed Hunt is about Ingrey Wolfcliff who was imbued with the soul of a wolf during a pagan ceremony when a small child. Now he has mastered his wolf and he is sent as a sort of bounty hunter to bring the murderer of the youngest son of the king to justice. He arrives to find that the murderer is a young woman named Ijada who has inherited a strange and powerful destiny.
Through the next three hundred plus pages Ingrey and Ijada discover secrets and mysteries that have been buried for hundreds of years and may have been better left there.
This book takes place in the same world as the Chalion books but is located somewhere else in the world and with completely new characters. She has established an interesting trend of writing each book to focus on one of the five gods. The Curse of Chalion was — though not immediately obvious — the Daughter’s book. Paladin of Souls was about the Bastard. Hallowed Hunt is completely and solely about the Son.
Each of the five gods represent different seasons and different parts of the body and different attributes. The Son is about forgiveness, so it is fitting that his book would dwell significantly upon that subject.
Forgiveness and mercy go hand in hand. How many times should we forgive? Is there a limit, a point at which a person has committed a crime so heinous that it is beyond our mortal capacity to forgive?
It’s probable that there is not, though I can easily imagine a number of things that I would have a very difficult time with.
The Hallowed Hunt is rife with characters that have committed truly evil acts and the gods — in this case the Son — beg their forgiveness.
Bujold does not shy away from a world in which religion is as real and important as it was in the Middle Ages of Western Europe. These people think about religion as every aspect of their lives… and it is real. The gods are only able to act through willing servants, people that are able to subject their will to a god’s control. Other times they have to act by sending multiple people to answer the prayers of an individual until one of them comes through.
It has a feeling of controlled chaos. The gods want to help, to make the world right, but they are sometimes thwarted by people who make their own choices.
When a person dies their soul is accepted by one of the gods, otherwise they are sundered, left untethered to a body like ghosts until they fade away into nothing, doomed to exist for eternity as immaterial and thoughtless spirits.
There is a beautiful scene in which the corpse of the murdered Prince Boleso is undergoing the ceremony to see which of the five gods will accept his soul. This is done with spirit animals that represent the gods. Ingrey and Ijada are taken together, mentally, to another place where the Son appears and tells them that he cannot take Boleso’s soul because it is infected with a multitude of animal spirits that he has harnessed through similar rites to the one that gave Ingrey his own. The Son asks ingrey to use his own wolf spirit to draw out the infecting animals of Boleso’s soul so that Boleso can be claimed by the Son.
Ingrey finds himself disgusted with the prospect of allowing Boleso, a rapist and murderer who has trod on the lives of countless people on his way to his untimely demise, a chance into heaven.
This is where the Son points out to Ingrey that he is not also without need of forgiveness in his life by asking him if he would rather be judged by “my Father.”
This scene happens early in the book and has implications that echo throughout the rest of the novel even down to the ending where once again Ingrey and Ijada stand, not as judges of good or evil, but as instruments of forgiveness for the gods who require their help and sacrifice in order to claim the souls of thousands of ancient dead.
The message, of course, is one that reverberates through many cultures and is ingrained into many religions around the world: Forgiveness is not a mortal choice, it is our duty.
Perhaps not surprising for a book that is fundamentally about a god called the Son who represents mercy, the hunt and spring time, this is a very spiritual book. It is a book in which the gods are real and nebulous and benevolent in all the ways that make sense. They are also infinitely patient and willing to work with the cracked and broken clay that is mortal men and women in order to save souls and make things right.
I’ve heard many times that The Hallowed Hunt is not as good as the other Chalion books and I can see that it is different. The tone and culture are new and harder to understand but I found it to be every bit as gripping and just as powerful.
Bujold has quickly established herself as one of the great writers and I will forever be grateful for the wonderful stories that she has given to the world.