I suspect many readers will find The Sharing Knife is a bit odd. It was written by Lois McMaster Bujold. Based on Bujold's other works, readers might assume the novel to be richly inventive, containing well-realized characters, and societies that are at once strange, striking, and moving—creations that carry the shock of the new even as they reflect interestingly on our own world. Bujold fans may relax. All of these qualities are definitely present in The Sharing Knife. Nevertheless, I hold to my contention that it will strike many readers as a bit off-balance, and may therefore make them restless.
I suggest these concerns early in my review both to be fair to potential readers and because the ways The Sharing Knife is odd point to interesting developments in Bujold's work.
To backtrack a bit, what is The Sharing Knife? It is the first novel in what the back cover blurb claims will be "an epic two-volume saga." However, more accurate is the phrase that occurs earlier in the same blurb: this is a work of "romantic fantasy." This could be said about much of Bujold's recent work. All three books in the Chalion series are fantasies; all three are deeply romantic, with one or more love matches at their heart. However, the Chalion books all tackle a complex challenge: they all twine romance plots in with other plots that are both political and metaphysical. These succeed to a greater or lesser degree. Paladin of Souls (2003) managed to balance its competing concerns nicely, as did The Curse of Chalion (2001), while The Hallowed Hunt (2005) tried to jam in too many plot twists (and too much metaphysical development), resulting in a vivid but clumsy stew of a book. By contrast, The Sharing Knife subordinates the fantastic threat to the world to the magic of love. (Thankfully, I mean that phrase literally.)
Don't get me wrong: the malice or bogle—two different names for the same supernatural creature—introduced in the novel's first chapters is a wonderful invention and distinctly threatening—but it is disposed of by about page 50, leaving 300 pages for the two main characters who met while dispatching the malice to fall in love and marry. There is little suspense, and while other magic is practiced throughout the novel, it is all either backstory or domestic. Either Dag the patroller is telling Fawn the fleeing farm girl the history and importance of the malice (backstory), and therefore of the importance of her part in killing it (backstory and domestic), or he's telling about the magic his people practice (backstory and domestic), binding the Dag and Fawn together with wedding magic (domestic), and so on. Domestic magic is an interesting and relatively rare narrative choice, and Bujold makes it interesting in itself, but focusing on it to such an extent unbalances the book. If a malice really has the potential to destroy the entire world, it feels odd to spend as many pages meeting the family, as many pages having sex, as many pages etc., as defeating Great and World Shattering Evil.
The result is a quiet book with almost no tension. Bujold uses dozens of small tropes taken from romance novels to structure The Sharing Knife. The result is that time and again events seem to exist—or at least, to work out—in order to push Dag and Fawn together and to advance their romance, rather than to advance any other plot. For example, when Dag first encounters Fawn, she's being held down by one of the malice's human servants, who is about to rape her. Dag rescues her— a romance trope for hundreds of years— seeing a "flash of sweet breasts like apples" in the process. Bujold's choice to have Dag—a deeply experienced warrior who is literally trying to save the world—notice the sweetness of Fawn's breasts, or to compare them to apples, is a choice to indicate that romance is both inevitable and more important than the malice itself.
Now, that point made, there are interesting continuities with Bujold's other books. The most obvious continuity is between Dag and past heroes. Dag is missing a hand, much as Cazaril bears a crippled hand in the Chalion books; both are marked by past clashes between duty and the darkness of divine purposes. Of course, both are cousin characters to Bujold's greatest creation, the luminous Miles Vorkosigan, the fragile dwarf warrior who animates her primary science fiction series. All three men operate in societies marked to some degree by tradition. All accept, nay, embrace the duties these societies place upon them, but all must find non-traditional ways to fulfill them. One of the results of their cripplings is that these men are more likely to take approaches other than brute strength—and far more open to female strengths in all areas than many men surrounding them.
Also like the other series, in The Sharing Knife there are investigations into the meaning, and often the magic and threat, of pregnancy. Miles's mother Cordelia was poisoned while pregnant with him, producing both a living metaphor of the sins of the parents being visited upon the children and a commentary on the risks of pregnancy. Similarly, Cazaril was "pregnant" with a demon, and so on. Here the malice has special interest in Fawn's unborn child, and offers her particular threat in turn. In all cases, the threat of these disturbed pregnancies produces great gifts for the world. In this case, the spirit of Fawn's child goes into a knife, charging it with magical powers that will no doubt cost the malice who caused her to miscarry dearly.
One of the ongoing wonderful qualities Bujold offers readers is vivid symbolic metaphors. In the Barrayar novels, Mark Vorkosigan's fat bears not just physical, but also psychic weight. It means, and it matters. In The Sharing Knife this skill is most visible in Dag's groundsense and in the weaving of their marriage bracelets. Groundsense is the ability to see/sense both the physical and the energetic qualities of a thing at the same time (or "grounds"), as if seeing with the third eye. As a result, Dag can see Fawn as she truly is. It is not infatuation that lets him see things in a young woman that her family cannot; it is a talent that shows him what is really there. Their respective grounds are bound together into the marriage bracelet which share their energies and links them forever and on the metaphysical level, as marriage is meant to do but so rarely does.
Clearly, there is much to enjoy in The Sharing Knife. (I could have said, "It's a Bujold book," and that would go without saying.) However, this is more of a romance with fantastic elements to enhance it than a full-blown fantasy in itself. That's a shame, because a world in which gods are absent—and importantly so—but magic works carries tremendous potential. I'm afraid that there is too much there left unexplained—and too much romance plot left—for everything to be worked out in Volume Two. However, this is a sweet book and a deftly written one, and I am glad I read it.
Any rumors you've heard about Greg Beatty's time at Clarion West 2000 are probably true. Greg publishes everything from poetry about stars to reviews of books that don't exist. Greg Beatty lives in Bellingham Washington, where he tries, unsuccessfully, to stay dry. Greg recently got married.