Generally known as the author of the acclaimed Miles Vorkosigan series of SF novels, Lois McMaster Bujold has set her last couple of books in her fantasy universe of Chalion. These have been outstanding novels, but the latest, The Hallowed Hunt, doesn't quite measure up. It's still extraordinarily well-written and carries Bujold's trademark prose, but the interest level just isn't there. The characters aren't as intriguing as previous volumes go.
Lord Ingrey kin Wolfcliff has been sent to a manor house where one of the king's sons has been brutally murdered. The accused killer is a young noblewoman who had been in the service of lord Boleso's sister. However, he had planned to use her in one of his unnatural rites, and she bludgeoned him, supposedly in self-defense. Ingrey has been sent to bring her back to Easthome for trial, but he finds himself caught up in a web of politics and deceit as the king is fading fast. Ingrey must not only deal with his growing feelings for this young woman but also with the dark secrets of his own past, and how they link him with the current plot to wrest the Hallow Kingship from its rightful heir. Ingrey will find that getting involved with the gods is not always a pleasant thing.
First, I can tell you that this is a completely standalone novel. No knowledge of the previous two books (The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls) is required at all as they have only established the world these characters live in. In fact, this story takes place in a completely different country, and it's unclear if it's even in the same time period. That being said, I missed the fact that there was no connection between these books. That might have made some of the characters a little more interesting. Instead, Bujold has to create everything from whole cloth, and she's not entirely successful.
I find the whole concept of the five gods to be fascinating, and Bujold makes good use of it here. We've seen the gods before, but we've never seen them in conflict with what's going on in the story. Usually they're either the catalyst for what's happening or they're working behind the scenes. This time the conflict is going against them, and it makes it even more interesting. The story is also tragic, when we find out what is truly going on with the Weald magic and a massacre committed a long time ago. When Ingrey finds out the truth about his past and the role that he must now play in it, the story comes together very nicely.
Unfortunately, it takes a while in getting there, and Bujold fails to make characters that grip the reader in the meantime. They aren't bad characters, in fact are somewhat intriguing, but long passages of the book drag where the characters involved don't grab the readerís attention at all. It's hard to really say what is wrong with them, as overall Ingrey and Ijada are good if overwritten at times. I just want Bujold to get on with the story, which is unusual for me. Bujold is usually a master of characterization, and her quiet scenes are typically some of the best, but not these. Another time where the story drags is Ingrey's first meeting and subsequent carousing with Jokol. The entire scene on the ship, while amusing at times, makes the reader wish Bujold would get back to the story. Yes, Jokol turns out to be important and so the scene is needed, but heís not that interesting and the scene could have been shorter. Finally, Wencel is irritating. Again, his situation (and his family's) is gripping, but the character himself just isn't fun to read about. This makes the final journey to the Wounded Woods boring, causing that sequence to drag.
That's not to say the book is bad, though. I don't think Bujold is capable of writing a "bad" book. Most of the time the characterization is wonderful, and even Ingrey and Ijada come into their own. Oswin is hilarious. His wife, the sorceress Hallana, is even more so, and adds a light comic touch to her scenes with Ingrey and Ijada, yet she's also fairly deep for a minor character. Even the complaints above (save Wencel) are mainly about the characters at certain times. Overall, they are quite nice. Bujold's prose is as gorgeous as ever, with only a few internal monologues feeling a bit clunky. She does manage to mix a little bit of tragedy with some comedy relief without making it jarring.
The Hallowed Hunt is well worth the read. Just because it doesn't quite measure up to her previous Chalion outings does not change that. Bujold has written another page-turner that I'm really glad to have read.