The Hallowed Hunt is a stand-alone novel set in the same fantasy world as Bujold's hugely successful Paladin of Souls and The Curse of Chalion. As in Paladin, Bujold confounds both fan expectations as well as conventional fantasy publishing wisdom in choosing to change direction and shift her attention to all-new characters and stories. I suspect this choice is also in part due to the fact that her Miles Vorkosigan space operas have followed a single character in traditional fashion, and Bujold possibly wants her fantasy world to be more expansive, and not restricted to one storyline drawn out over several books.
That's great. Fantasy has become too dependent, as a genre, on the multibook saga. Reading fantasy can be a frustrating exercise in many ways. It's like getting married; you're expected to make a long-term commitment. And it's difficult to pick up a book by an author you've never tried before, just cold off the racks. Which book comes first (if they aren't clearly labeled)? How much backstory will I need to know to comprehend the plot? Bujold has made each of her fantasies perfectly accessible to new readers no matter which they pick up first.
The story is set in the Weald, a land some distance removed from Chalion-Ibra. (Bujold's unwillingness to include maps in the front of these books, another defiance of publishing convention, is a direct bit of gauntlet-throwing to the reader. Bujold wants your full attention on her narrative and doesn't want to give fans any easy shortcuts into her world.) The Weald is a realm once ruled by natural, pagan-esque magics, long ago conquered by the Darthacans and the five gods of their Quintarian religion. The old ways are returning, however, but slowly, and the five gods still hold sway.
Ingrey is a minor lord in the service of Lord Hetwar of Easthome, the capital city where the hallow king lies dying. Ingrey is dispatched to arrest the Lady Ijada, a handmaiden of Princess Fara, for the murder of one of the king's black-sheep heirs. She pleads self-defense, which all the evidence supports. But it was not merely her maiden honor she was defending. The nasty prince was intending to use her in some frightening ritual involving the animal magics of the Old Weald. Despite his death, he was too successful, and Ijada is now bound to a leopard spirit. Ingrey himself immediately detects this because he, too, as a child, was similarly bound to a wolf spirit as the result of a bungled bit of sorcery by his father.
Ingrey discovers something else, too: a nearly irresistible complusion to kill Ijada that turns out to be a magical geas placed upon him by an unknown party. And when this geas is removed by a priestess friend of Ijada's, Ingrey's wolf spirit comes to the fore, giving Ingrey the power to wield powerful magics and see into divine realms quite overtly. But whom among the cast of supporting players could be machinating all of this? Fara's mercurial husband, the Earl Wencel, who has a habit of popping up at the most interesting times? Or the surviving prince and heir? Or someone else entirely?
Like those Russian nesting dolls, each revelation in the plot leads to another, until we are in the midst of an elaborate drama involving the succession of the throne, race memory, and magical vengeance. It takes some effort to follow, but it pays off, as Bujold has given us another novel in which a deceptively simple act sets elaborate schemes in motion. And as in this novel's predecessors, Bujold shows us how, as much as people might hope to choose their destinies, often the world will do with you what it will, and your duty and destiny, while not necessarily of your own choosing, is still yours to fulfill in the end. I was also fascinated by the way Bujold constructed the magic of the Old Weald, tying magic into a race's culture and identity in a way you usually don't see in most fantasies.
Whereas Paladin won over the hearts of fans by being especially accessible (in the style of the Miles novels) compared to the highly formalist and literary Curse, The Hallowed Hunt shows Bujold moving back in the direction of the first book's more literary style. The plot as described above is every bit as intricate as that of Curse, requiring attentive reading, and those readers who were swept up by the action- and romance-packed Paladin might find themselves checking their watches during some rather stodgy expository passages.
Yet overall this is an impressive addition to Bujold's fantasy canon. It might be a wee bit weaker on character than its predecessors. Ingrey is almost but not quite the hero Lupe de Cazaril was; Cazaril underwent a process of renewal and redemption that gave him a hook for reader sympathy that Ingrey lacks. And as a heroine, Ijada, while wholly likable, simply isn't fit to shine Ista's shoes. I found the reading of Hallowed to be bit more of an intellectual exercise than a visceral one. My emotional investment in the protagonists' crisis this time wasn't quite as profound. But we're talking a matter of tiny degrees here. On that intellectual level, the story, with all its ingenious perambulations, is satisfying. There's a puzzle here to be unraveled, and the unraveling of it is absorbing and worth the effort.
Readers who loved the previous novels in this saga will, as sure as night follows day, embrace this one just as enthusiastically. Although the likelihood that The Hallowed Hunt might garner Bujold a fifth Best Novel Hugo is something I'd rather not contemplate, much as I like her. There's such a thing, after all, as being a little too hallowed.