I love Lois McMaster Bujold, but The Sharing Knife: Passage suffers from an absence of malice.
Let me expand on that a bit. The Sharing Knife: Passage is the third volume in Bujold's third series. The first two series are her wonderful Miles Vorkosigan stories, and her intriguing but often uneven Chalion books. The previous two volumes in The Sharing Knife series were The Sharing Knife: Beguilement (2006) and The Sharing Knife: Legacy (2007), reviewed in Strange Horizons here and here.
If you haven't read those earlier books, this one will seem pointless. (Actually, if you have read those books, this volume may seem a touch pointless, but more on that later.) Briefly, in the first volume Bujold introduced a complex world, one where Lakewalkers protect the masses of ordinary people from the menace posed by the malices. Lakewalkers and malices are bound together in an ancient and symbolic battle dance. Malices consume all they encounter: they devour the "grounds" of living things, taking on their shape, deforming their minds and identities. Think voracious, sloppy, and telepathic golems with a single mind running many magicked minds and you'll have a good sense of the danger malices pose. As Dag (the male hero and primary Lakewalker protagonist throughout the three volumes) explains, left to its own deviecs a single malice could grow so large that it could consume the world. The Lakewalkers' ceaseless and often thankless patrols are the only check on this threat, as they (Dag and the other Lakewalkers) can manipulate grounds (which seem a blend of chi and more generalized life energy). This means Dag can control insects and animals, sense and identify people at a distance, repair shattered glass bowls, give his young wife energetic orgasms, and in general do what seems to most of humanity, and especially the farmers, to be magic.
In addition to the world and the threat, the first volume introduced what seems to be the point of the series: the profound love between Dag and his farmer bride Fawn, who he's prone to calling Spark for the brightness of her ground. It's hard to imagine a love affair more star-crossed; Romeo and Juliet were pikers beside Dag and Fawn. Dag is middle-aged, missing a hand, and a Lakewalker, descendant of a race of sorcerer kings. Fawn is 18, a pretty, intelligent, but normal farmer girl. She can't do the ground manipulation/magic that justifies Lakewalker existence, and is so small that she may die giving birth to a much larger Lakewalker baby. Fawn's family opposes the marriage at first, because he's so old and alien, and won't be able to give her a real (settled) farmer existence. In the second volume, despite Dag saving the day from a major malice menace, Dag's family, clan, and entire people reject the couple's marriage. (There are some complications, but it's essentially a rejection.) Along the way, Dag's been doing some soul-searching, and at the end of the second book, he decided that rather than being farmers or Lakewalkers, the two of them will find a third way, even if that means changing the world. The book ended with the couple heading out into the world to make their new way.
And that brings us to volume 3, in which the couple take a boat trip, talk a lot, and try to figure out how to overthrow society and save the world, while Dag also tries to figure out just what the limits of his growing ability to manipulate ground are. Seriously. There are a few Big Discussions (often Dag explaining ground principles to non-Lakewalkers, a break with tradition) and a few less than subtle Object Lessons (usually Dag interacting with other Lakewalkers, or with the results of his magics), that stand out as if they'd been highlighted, but this book is essentially exposition and development.
The Sharing Knife: Passage is, then, a transitional volume, and one that seems decidedly incomplete. Like the earlier volumes, it is full of nice small touches. Bujold's first books had phenomenal characterization and action but were occasionally marked by clumsy prose. Those days are gone. Every line reads smoothly, and many are graceful. Similar proficiency is visible in the development of the novel's themes. Dag's growing powers are necessary to the overall thematic development. Lakewalkers see themselves as the opposites of malices, but as Dag's ability to rip and consume grounds show, that's more a matter of assumption and tradition than nature. While delicately handled, Dag's experimentation is akin to dabbling in techniques traditionally used by the Sith, only to find that they are not innately evil, but rather dependant upon the situation.
Dag and Fawn's relationship is also thematically essential. Her youth keeps her from being bound by tradition or habit; her insightful mind generates new solutions to problems that are literally as old as civilization. Though small and lacking physical power, Fawn is apparently fearless and obsessed with figuring things out, willing to risk much for an answer. Dag's missing hand is an emblem of what he's paid for his position and power; as a malice killer he's unsurpassed, and he's ended threats that his peers weren't sure could be beat.
For Bujold fans, the couple are also clear continuations of dominant tropes in her other series. Fawn is almost as small as Miles Vorkosigan, and is as young as Vorkosigan was when he first appeared. Dag is crippled but touched by powers beyond the norm, like Cazaril and others in the Chalion series. The pair align with other recurring concerns as well; just as Gregor and Laissa can change the relationship between Barrayar and Komarr because they come from different worlds, just as Iselle and Bergon can change their kingdoms through their love because they are from different sides of a war, so Dag and Fawn are perfectly chosen and placed to change their world.
There's another parallel here, a darker one that's given more explicit consideration in The Sharing Knife: Passage. While the farmers are more numerous, and are markedly, emphatically normal, the powers Lakewalkers possess make them ... something more. As with the shamans in the Chalion series or the Cetagandans in the Miles books, the Lakewalkers are essentially superior, and though cross-breeding is possible, they are almost a distinct race. In this third book, Dag faces the implications of this superiority. While they travel to and fro on the river, he publicly heals a non-Lakewalker, setting up mass demands for healing that are delivered with threats of mob violence. Dag accidentally "beguiles" Hod, one of the normal humans he heals, with the result that Hod is so addicted to getting more "ground reinforcement" (Lakewalker for energy healing) that he intentionally re-injures himself. Dag can take care of this easily enough, removing the beguilement and learning in the process how to heal without beguiling. The third issue involving class/race superiority is darker and more complex, and ends up providing the book's climax.
For a long time, though, it doesn't seem like the book will have a climax at all. Fawn and Dag visit her family, and end up taking Fawn's brother Whit along with them. When they get to the river, more and more plot twists get woven in. Fawn finds a boat to transport them, and Whit falls for the female boat captain, whose father and betrothed have both gone missing. As the boat moves down the river, almost as leisurely in its pace as Huck's raft on the Mississippi, it picks up passengers, including two more Lakewalkers, and refugees from boat accidents. It seems for a time as though Dag and Fawn are going to float down the river endlessly, doing small good deeds, monitoring Dag's forays into the dark side of ground manipulation, and occasionally adding another misfit or outcast. Then, however, they meet Alder, the boat owner's long lost promised husband.
Alder explains where he's been, but Dag's ground sense lets him know when people are lying—or beguiled, like Alder's traveling companion. Dag unbeguiles the man, and a dark and twisted story spills out. A rogue Lakewalker has used his mental powers to become master of a band of river bandits. They've been preying on countless travelers: killing, raping, and enslaving them.
Thematically, this is nearly perfect, as Dag leads a pack of mixed farmers, river men, and Lakewalkers into battle against Darth Lakewalker, I mean, Crane, and his river bandits, just as he used to lead Lakewalker bands against malices. Dag's been experimenting with forbidden ground manipulation; Crane's life is built around abusing these powers, and he's set himself up as a demigod with them. Dag must eventually face Crane directly and beat him at his own dark game of ground manipulation.
Crane is responsible for dozens of deaths, and preys on anyone vulnerable who passes along a river. But because this villainy is relayed in summary—readers never see Crane engaging in the despicable acts reported—its intensity and import is muted. He is also a minor-league threat, compared to the malices who so charged the first volumes' pages. If Crane's not checked, somewhat more people will die than the river or non-telepathic bandits would kill. If a malice is not checked, literally everyone in the world dies. You do the math on the relative importance.
While Dag does win, the method used is implicit in his earlier tests of his growing abilities, and so the victory is bereft of suspense or, frankly, much satisfaction. What's more, however noble Dag is, and however good his intention to remake the world, this volume doesn't resolve the sticky issue presented by a society whose members really are unequal. While I assume this is intentional—it leaves Bujold with a natural arc for another book, and links well with the looming mythic questions of where all this malice & magic came from—the result is that this volume seems, frankly, incomplete. I'll read the next, of course, in hopes of getting back to the malice wars, and because I do like the affectionate love fest between Dag and Fawn, but as for Passage ... you could almost let it pass by.
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 and lives in Bellingham Washington, where he tries, unsuccessfully, to stay dry.
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