In her two-book series, The Sharing Knife, Lois McMaster Bujold has created a new fantasy world, a post-catastrophe land that is a sad remnant of its former glory and achievement. This world has not only been ruined by past sorcerous wars, but is still devastated by a lasting fruit of those wars—creatures called malices, horrific beings that erupt out of the ground at unpredictable times and steal the life out of everything around them.
The first book, The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, concluded with the forbidden marriage of Dag Redwing and Fawn Bluefield, the two main characters, and now, in Book Two, we see the consequences. The problem is that Dag is a Lakewalker and Fawn is a farmer: these are not occupations but separate societies, and no intermingling is allowed. Although both Lakewalkers and farmers have vital roles—Lakewalkers supply the patrollers who continually search the land for malices and destroy them when they appear, while farmers reclaim and cultivate land as life slowly creeps back into areas once devastated—each group looks on the other with suspicion and hostility, and Dag's family will do everything in their power to separate the two and end their marriage.
Both a romance and a darkish fantasy, The Sharing Knife is something akin to what you'd get by mixing Kathleen Woodiwiss with Brian Lumley, and adding a shot of Mark Twain. The mix is a little uneasy. Book One began in a conflict with a malice: Dag rescued Fawn from its clutches, the malice was quickly disposed of, and the rest of the novel involved Dag and Fawn's relationship—what they felt, what they thought, how they circled around each other and finally entered into a relationship, how they courted, overcame the objections of Fawn's family, and married. Book Two carries this story on until another malice enters the picture and must be destroyed. But the fight against malices is not driving the story. The main business here is Will woman get (and keep) man? and the threats to life and civilization are the narrative's secondary concern.
The Sharing Knife contains some striking scene setting. It distinguishes itself from the majority of fantasies, and from Bujold's Chalion series, by adopting an informal American idiom for the narrative voice ("She fed him a right fine breakfast," p. 12) and for the characters, who greet each other frequently with a "how de', sir" (or ma'am). "You didn't even give her a chance to say her piece!" says Fawn (p. 70). The natural setting, too, is American, with mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, blackflies, and poison ivy among the annoyances of wild areas, and wild turkeys, possums, and raccoons among the fauna; Dag's horse is named Copperhead (a venomous snake) for its ill temper and propensity to attack. This is no hazy medieval world—hedgerows, hawthorns, and white harts are not to be found—it is wild or frontier in nature, depending on how near you are to the comparative civilization of a settlement.
And any neighborhood can slip into horror at the appearance of a mindless but deadly malice. The malices are fascinating, frightening creations, and I wish the story could have employed them better—they could not be used to their best advantage in this story, where the climax is focused on determining whether Fawn and Dag will separate or not. To elaborate on my first description of them—it's not simply life that malices steal, but "ground." The explanations of what exactly ground really is become complicated and baffling, but perhaps it can be explained as essence, a binding force of existence, or part life and part spirit. What sets Lakewalkers apart from farmers is not just that they belong to a social group that is separate from farmers, but more importantly that they have the ability to see and feel ground, and work with it: Lakewalkers have a "ground sense"; farmers do not. And it is Lakewalkers' ability to sense and manipulate ground that allows them to create the only weapon that will destroy malices—the "sharing knife" of the series title.
Yet despite this allusion, not only do the malices not make up the primary thread of the story, they are not even the primary antagonists. The main forces of opposition are Fawn and Dag's families. Both are initially opposed, even appalled, by the idea of their marriage. Fawn's family eventually comes to accept their union. Dag's mother and brother do not. Dag's mother, Cumbia, becomes the most striking of the supporting characters: resolutely determined to control her son's life and veto his choices, she refuses love and reconciliation with Dag, yet watches him longingly from concealment when he is unaware. Disdainful of Fawn, and confident that she knows Dag, she tells Fawn bluntly why Dag will abandon her:
"... let me tell you the truth about patrollers, girl. Because I was married to one. Sister, daughter, and mother to the breed—walked with them, too, when I was your age, 'bout a thousand years ago. Men, women, old, young, kind or mean-minded, in one thing they are all the same. Once they've seen their first malice, they don't ever give up patrol unless they're crippled or dead. And they don't ever put anyone else before it ... If Dag doesn't love you enough, he'll choose the patrol. And if he loves you beyond all sense—he'll choose the patrol. Because you're standing in the center of that world he's sent to save, and if he doesn't save it, he doesn't save you, either." (p. 177-178)
This quote highlights what ultimately binds the mix of genres together: Bujold's strength in characterization. Fawn's youthful innocence and her joy at first tasting a loving sexual bond are well drawn. Like The Curse of Chalion's Cazaril, Dag is one of Bujold's maimed, emotionally whipped heroes in need of healing. He is not a particularly vivid character, but he is likeable and sympathetic. Both are utterly convincing as real people, meeting both the mundane and the terrifying with believable abilities, tentative in assessing their own desires, fearing rejection, and daring to take a chance on someone else. In a romance, that is what we ask for: two people, in love, who overcome all those enemies—the forced separation, the naysayers, the self-doubt—to pledge "We are one."
Donna Royston was first published at age five. It was a poem titled "My Grandmother's Cats." Now she writes stories about Genghis Khan and sentient rocks.
You must log in to post a comment.