TW: animal death.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt, a prequel of sorts to The Curse of Chalion (the two novels share a universe, but are set in different times and places and have no character overlap), is another example of that too-rare beast, a fantasy novel deeply interested in religion. This isn’t a surprise: Chalion, which I read a couple of months before The Hallowed Hunt, is a deeply-argued look at free will and the nature of sainthood, cathartic and revelatory. The Hallowed Hunt, I would say, is less ecstatically structured and less piercing, but it’s still carefully observed and intellectually engaged.
Lord Ingrey of the Weald is sent to investigate the murder of the king’s son Prince Boleso, seemingly at the hands of Ijada, a lady-in-waiting who Boleso intended to rape. But the murder scene is unsettling: for one thing, a leopard has been hanged from the ceiling; for another, the prince’s body is covered in strange painted symbols. It seems the prince has been dabbling in ancient shamanic practices which were virtually wiped out when the Weald was invaded by the civilisation featured in The Curse of Chalion, who imposed their own five-god system on the Weald’s inhabitants. As a result, Ijada has been possessed by the spirit of the sacrificed leopard. Unbeknownst to almost anybody else, Ingrey also carries an animal spirit within his soul, having been the subject of a similarly botched ritual as a child. Ingrey and Ijada’s immediate concern is to prevent Ijada being executed for murdering Boleso, and, in the longer term, to work out how Boleso learned about the ritual in the first place and why. What emerges is a tragedy about the death of a culture and a love story about trying to redress that loss.
In fact looking at The Hallowed Hunt as a romance, although not necessarily the most immediately obvious approach, turns out to be a productive way of framing it: because this is a novel whose chief characters are wrestling with the question of how to reconcile two different theological systems, two different cultures and systems of thought. (It’s relevant to note here that Ijada is not only a spiritual heir to the people of the Old Weald – thanks to the leopard – but also an heir in the more traditional sense, being the owner of the Wounded Woods, where they fought their last battle.) That’s exactly how romances function: they’re texts that seek to bring together warring ideas or principles in order to restore order and harmony.
I think what makes this different from The Curse of Chalion is partly that the focus is not so much on the personal experience of religion as on the restoration of a nation’s identity and culture through the rejuvenation of its religion – a theme that’s very relevant to post-colonial discourse, although this isn’t a text that’s actively participating in the modern version of that discourse (in the way that novels like, say, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire are). I’m a little anxious, though, about Bujold’s choice to render the religion of the Old Weald as a specifically shamanic one (and a violent one at that): it plays into the racist idea that shamanic religions are primitive, and simultaneously into the appropriative line of thought prevalent in overwhelmingly white neopagan communities that there is a “core” version of shamanism that is culturally non-specific and thus up for grabs by anyone who fancies it. (Bujold’s setting is distinctly European; she’s actually said that the Weald is an alternative version of Germany.) It’s a pity that the novel undermines its anticolonial themes in this way.
With that in mind, it did still work for me (and of course your mileage may vary). Bujold’s religious systems are both elegant and vital – unlike many such systems in fantasy, which tend to be over-codified and lacking in that crucial element of mysticism, of ineffableness, that makes religion meaningful in the first place, they feel like evolving traditions, like something real people could believe in. Bujold, I think, properly understands why we are drawn to religion, and it’s refreshing that she makes that understanding the starting point for her novels rather than the be-all and end-all of them. The Hallowed Hunt is a flawed novel, but it’s tackling themes and ideas that not many SFF novels do; and doing so with attention to detail, careful characterisation and satisfying plotting.