The Sharing Knife: Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold: B+

From the front flap:
Fawn Bluefield, the clever young farmer girl, and Dag Redwing Hickory, the seasoned Lakewalker soldier-sorcerer, have been married all of two hours when they depart her family’s farm for Dag’s home at Hickory Lake Camp. Alas, their unlikely marriage is met with prejudice and suspicion, setting many in the camp against them. A faction of the camp even goes so far as to threaten permanent exile for Dag.

Before their fate as a couple is decided, however, Dag is called away by an unexpected malice attack on a neighboring hinterland threatening Lakewalkers and farmers both. What his patrol discovers there will not only change Dag and hew new bride, but will call into question the uneasy relationship between their peoples—and may even offer a glimmer of hope for a less divided future.

When I reviewed the first installment in The Sharing Knife series, Beguilement, I lamented its lack of a more traditional fantasy novel plot. It’s not that it wasn’t good; it just wasn’t what I expected. This second volume, Legacy, definitely fulfills more of that traditional fantasy role while dealing with the aftermath of Dag and Fawn’s marriage in interesting ways.

Since the two books were originally conceived of as one, this one picks up two hours later, with the newly married Dag and Fawn on their way to Hickory Lake, the Lakewalker camp where Dag’s family resides. When they arrive, all sorts of questions are answered, though it’s the new ones that crop up that prove the more interesting.

Bujold again excels at writing in such a way that it is incredibly easy to visualize the scene and her worldbuilding is unique and thorough. I enjoyed all the details of life at Hickory Lake, including the way the camp is laid out, the clever patrol-tracking system in place in the commander’s cabin, further information on sharing knives and the origin of malices, and the process for settling camp grievances. I also thought it was neat that, like Fawn’s family back in West Blue, Dag’s family is still unable to really see him for his own worth.

More compelling than this, however, is the fact that the novel deals with the question of what Dag and Fawn ought to do now that they are married. What will become of Fawn when Dag goes out on patrol? What if he doesn’t come back; can he trust the camp to provide for her? Will she ever be accepted, even if she displays her cleverness and desire to be useful over and over again? Indeed, it’s Fawn who makes the intuitive leap later in the novel that saves the lives of ten people, yet others almost immediately seek to award credit to Dag somehow. Even those who like her, like the camp’s medicine maker, Hoharie, stop short of recommending a permanent place for her in camp life.

On the more fantasy side of things, Dag is contending with his “ghost hand,” ground that originally belonged to his left hand, now missing, which can be called upon in times of urgency to perform unexpected feats of magic. (Or, as shown in the too-detailed marital consummation scene early in the book, for sexy purposes. At least the rest of such encounters are less explicit.) When a jaunt as captain, commanding several patrols as they strive to exterminate a highly-advanced malice, ends with him using this hand in a couple of new ways, Dag begins to realize that perhaps his life is going to change directions.

What with the way Fawn’s being treated at the camp, the way farmers largely remain ignorant of the malice threat, the threat of banishment arising from his family’s petition to dissolve his and Fawn’s marriage, and the knowledge that maybe he could be something other than a patroller, Dag eventually decides to head out and travel the world with Fawn by his side. Somehow I had absorbed the spoiler that this would eventually happen, but I like that the decision ultimately makes sense.

Overall, I liked Legacy more than Beguilement. I like the lead characters and hope that the small band of supporting Lakewalkers who were on their side in the camp council hearing will be seen again. It looks like Dag and Fawn will be acquiring some traveling companions in the next book, too, which I’m look forward to.

Additional reviews of The Sharing Knife: Legacy can be found at Triple Take.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: B

From the back cover:
From its sharply satiric opening sentence, Mansfield Park deals with money and marriage, and how strongly they affect each other. Shy, fragile Fanny Price is the consummate “poor relation.” Sent to live with her wealthy uncle Thomas, she clashes with his spoiled, selfish daughters and falls in love with his son. Their lives are further complicated by the arrival of a pair of sophisticated Londoners, whose flair for flirtation collides with the quiet, conservative country ways of Mansfield Park. An outsider looking in on an unfamiliar and often inhospitable world, Fanny eventually wins the affection of her benefactors, endearing herself to the Bertram family and readers alike.

I feel very much that I ought to love Mansfield Park, Austen fan that I am, but I simply can’t. With any Austen novel—satirical as they are—one is bound to encounter excessively foolish and self-aggrandizing characters. I fully expect that and am accustomed to disliking a few in each novel. I did not, however, expect to dislike nearly everyone, which is lamentably the case with this novel.

Fanny herself is the biggest problem. She’s meek, weak, weepy, and irksomely virtuous, to the point where other characters annoyed me simply because they gave her fodder for her hand-wringing. Her cousin Edmund, our ostensible romantic hero, isn’t much better. He’s a wet blanket, too, fond of lecturing others about what is right, but also a hypocrite, since his objections to the scandalous idea of producing a play at Mansfield Park are easily overcome when he learns one additional man is required to play the suitor of his lady friend, Miss Crawford.

Everyone else is self-absorbed, indolent, or deluded to varying degrees. Though Fanny’s personality is the biggest blow to my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, the character I hate most is actually Mrs. Norris (though at least with her I can feel assured that this doesn’t run counter to Austen’s intentions). She’s Fanny’s aunt, a frequent visitor to her sister and brother-in-law at Mansfield Park, and is fond of claiming charitable acts for herself that she actually had no part in executing, getting into everyone’s business, and making snide remarks about Fanny at every opportunity. No wonder J. K. Rowling named Filch’s cat after this odious woman! The only character I truly like is Fanny’s uncle, Sir Thomas, for he’s one of those gruff but kind paternal types that I can’t help but love.

The plot itself, like Austen’s other novels, involves the social interactions of several country families, with the importance of marrying well uppermost on everyone’s minds. The back cover blurb quoted above says that Fanny “wins the affection of her benefactors,” but that implies that Fanny actually does something to bring this about. In reality, Fanny pretty much sits back, sticks to her principles in refusing one undesirable suitor, and, when he is proven a rake and her female cousin disgraced, is suddenly valued for all of her propriety.

Thus brings us to the inevitable conclusion, wherein Edmund realizes that Fanny would make a better wife than Miss Crawford. There’s no romance leading up to this, since he spends the majority of the novel longing for the latter and often employs Fanny as his confidante in this regard. Though I am probably supposed to be happy for Fanny at this outcome, I instead find it pretty icky. True, Fanny has sheltered romantic feelings for Edmund throughout the novel, but he has always treated her very properly like a close relation. In fact, as he ponders the match, he holds hopes that her “warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.” To that I must say, “Ew.”

Although I had plenty to complain about, Mansfield Park is still an Austen novel, which means that the writing is excellent and the characters vividly drawn and memorable. Though it’s my least favorite of the four I’ve read so far it by no means decreases my regard for her in general.

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold: B

From the front flap:
Young Fawn Bluefield has fled her family’s farm hoping to find work in the city of Glassforge. Uncertain about her future and the troubles she carries, Fawn stops for a drink of water at a roadside inn, where she counters a patrol of Lakewalkers, enigmatic soldier-sorcerers from the woodland culture to the north. Though Fawn has heard stories about the Lakewalkers, she is unaware that they are engaged in a perilous campaign against inhuman and immortal magical entities known as “malices,” creatures that suck the life out of all they encounter, and turn men and animals into their minions.

Dag is an older Lakewalker patroller who carries his past sorrows as heavily as his present responsibilities. When Fawn is kidnapped by the malice Dag’s patrol is tracking, Dag races to rescue her. But in the ensuing struggle, it is not Dag but Fawn who kills the creature—at dire cost—and an uncanny accident befalls Dag’s sharing knife, which unexpectedly binds their two fates together.

For all that this book took me something like six weeks to finish, I find that I don’t actually have all that much to say about it. The description quoted above admirably sums up the beginning of the novel, in which Dag rescues Fawn from some bandits, her pregnant status provokes a nasty creature to kidnap her back again, and they end up taking down a “malice” together. I can’t help but think that the reason the blurb doesn’t touch on any plot after this point is that there really isn’t much of one.

Beguilement is really more of a romance than a fantasy novel, though Bujold has still done a good job with the worldbuilding, working in details on the differences between Fawn’s and Dag’s cultures throughout the novel. But after the malice is defeated, there isn’t much going on except them riding on horses, staying in inns, developing fancies for one another, finally consummating their relationship, doing it many more times and often outdoors in the company of bugs, encountering Fawn’s not-so-supportive family, convincing them to support a marriage, and getting hitched. I guess if I lay it out like that it looks like a lot happened, but really, how much of that sounds like a fantasy novel?

The fact that the characters are both likable makes up for some of the plotlessness, at least. Fawn has had a very sheltered upbringing where her thirst for knowledge was not encouraged. Now, with support for her quick wits, she proves herself to be pretty clever and resourceful. Dag is a very experienced patroller who was widowed before Fawn’s birth (there’s quite a big age difference between them) and has been fiercely solitary ever since, so opening himself up to her is a pretty unique experience for him. Because there’s a lot that Fawn doesn’t know and is curious about, it sometimes seems like you’ve got the “wise man teaching ignorant girl” dynamic going on, but it’s not really pervasive. There’s one scene near the end where Dag praises Fawn for a brilliant leap of logic that comes across as completely admiring and not at all patronizing. It even made me a bit sniffly after seeing how little her family appreciates her.

Too, Bujold simply writes really well. Without being overly wordy, she can paint a scene so vividly that it’s incredibly easy to visualize. The best example is probably the part where Dag has found the malice’s lair and is taking in the layout of the area: I swear I could picture it perfectly after only a couple of sentences. And even if the parts with Fawn’s family were rather uncomfortable to read, considering their dismissive treatment of her, they were still entertaining. Probably, enduring all that strife was necessary so as to be as relieved as the main characters when they were finally able to leave it all behind.

While I like Fawn and Dag both together and separately, I do hope that there’s more of a plot to the next book. A typical fantasy series would have an epic quest to wipe out evil, but I sort of doubt Bujold is going to adhere to standard genre tropes. Because I do admire her writing, I’m willing to stick around and see how the story develops, but if this was the first installment of a story by anyone else, I’m not sure I’d be too keen to continue with it.

Additional reviews of The Sharing Knife:Beguilement can be found at Triple Take.

Emma by Jane Austen: A

From the back cover:
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable house and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

With this opening sentence, a reader might seem quite justified in thinking Jane Austen to have painted herself into a corner. What could possibly happen from here? In Austen’s comedic masterpiece, however, Emma fancies herself a superb judge of human character and becomes entrenched in the amorous affairs of her friends. In doing so, she remains oblivious to her own romantic possibilities, and the resulting comical misunderstandings are highly entertaining.

This book is the acme of Jane Austen’s work, wry and funny all at the same time.

Merriam-Webster defines bildungsroman as “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.” I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that fit that description more than Emma.

I didn’t much care for the title character at first. In fact, she initially reminded me of Lady Catherine from Pride and Prejudice, dispensing unsolicited advice and basing many of her opinions on assumptions and an inordinate amount of focus on social standing. I found myself gleefully anticipating her comeuppance.

When she did begin to improve, Austen handled the transition incrementally, using friends to prompt Emma to give up meddling or urge her to accept a social engagement she’d believed beneath her notice. She learned from rebukes and mistakes and gradually became someone more likeable. The feminist in me tells me I should be perturbed that so many of these chastising remarks were delivered by her eventual love interest, but since Mr. Knightley was my favorite character, I can’t really be bothered.

The events of the plot were somewhat predictable, in a “the young lady introduced into the story in act two must be destined for the young man introduced not long after” sort of way. A big secret revealed toward the end was not a particular surprise, and also seemed recycled from Sense and Sensibility. Also, as I’m coming to find common in Austen’s novels, the sillier characters were given such free rein to display their ridiculousness that they really got on my nerves.

The end of the novel, however, was satisfying. I liked the way in which Emma was forced to finally realize her feelings for Mr. Knightley, as well as the mortification and regret over her past conduct that ensued. The conclusion could be called too tidy, I suppose, with no one left lonely or unhappy, but I found no fault with it.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: A+

From the back cover:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Thus memorably begins Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of the world’s most popular novels. From the initial friction between the opinionated Elizabeth Bennet and the arrogant, wealthy Mr. Darcy, this witty comedy of manners dips and turns through its interlocking plots to reach an immensely satisfying conclusion.

Filled with highly entertaining dialogue, Pride and Prejudice is, in the words of Eudora Welty, as “irresistible and as nearly flawless as any fiction could be.”

There isn’t much that I can say in praise of Pride and Prejudice that hasn’t already been said often and better. So, instead I shall just enthuse on various things.

I love that Darcy secretly despises those who constantly court his approval, and loves Elizabeth for her liveliness of mind and playful, unaffected manner.

The writing is snarky and very cleverly wrought, with sentences like: “Their indifference towards Jane, when not immediately before them, restored Elizabeth to the enjoyment of all her original dislike.”

I adore Mr. Bennet, especially his amusement in the foolish behavior of others. Best line (occurring in a scene where his wife expects his cooperation in furthering her aims): “Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

There are many great scenes, but my favorites are possibly those at the Netherfield ball, where most of the members of the Bennet family behave in a highly embarrassing fashion and where Darcy and Elizabeth have a conversation about Wickham whilst they dance. I also quite enjoy his bungled first proposal.

The minor characters are often very amusing. They’re also capable of grating on the nerves, though, especially Lydia and her absolute lack of repentance after her scandalous behavior with Wickham.

So, I find I concur heartily with the quote above. “Nearly flawless,” indeed.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen: A+

Book description:
Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility is a wonderfully entertaining tale of flirtation and folly that revolves around two starkly different sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. While Elinor is thoughtful, considerate, and calm, her younger sister is emotional and wildly romantic. Both are looking for a husband, but neither Elinor’s reason nor Marianne’s passion can lead them to perfect happiness.

Startling secrets, unexpected twists, and heartless betrayals interrupt the marriage games that follow. Filled with satiric wit and subtle characterizations, Sense and Sensibility teaches that true love requires a balance of reason and emotion.

I had never read this before. And I call myself an Austen fan!

There is much to recommend this book, but primarily I would say that the characterizations were its best asset. It can’t be easy to create a very sensible character like Elinor, and yet perfectly convey that she is also a person of great feeling and compassion or to create a very emotional one like Marianne, and yet also make clear that she isn’t flighty or stupid. Additionally, Austen populates the novel with a host of memorable minor characters, at whose expense she occasionally engages in some breezily skewering satire. Here’s a favorite passage of mine:

Sir John was loud in his admiration at the end of every song and as loud in his conversation with the others while every song lasted. Lady Middleton frequently called him to order, wondered how any one’s attention could be diverted from music for a moment, and asked Marianne to sing a particular song which Marianne had just finished.

If pressed to note a flaw, the only thing I could mention is the character of Edward, and Elinor’s feelings for him. Because they are formed before the start of the novel, and then Edward is never quite himself on his subsequent appearances, I didn’t really get why she loved him.

As a random observation, I was struck with how often the Dashwood sisters were compelled to accept invitations they would have preferred to refuse, be it to reside in a certain house for a time or to spend time associating with tiresome people. Once there, they often had to sit around for hours being bored or discussing which of a pair of children was the taller. Dreary! Happily, the same cannot be said of Sense and Sensibility.

The Wedding Journey by Carla Kelly: C+

From the back cover:
Captain Jesse Randall has never expressed his intense love for Nell Mason—not even as she blossoms into glorious womanhood before his eyes. Her beauty is a treasure as rare and welcome as roses in January. But if Jesse were to tell her at long last that she means the world to him—would she believe him?

Nell’s father is going to marry her to his creditor to settle his ruinous finances. To prevent that, Jesse weds Nell to provide her with his protection for as long as she wants it—never imagining that she could ever return his love. But Nell has much to show her new husband about life, women—and love…

This was favorably reviewed on a book blog I read, so I decided to check it out even though romances are decidedly not my thing. I found it incredibly difficult to get into at first, and was bothered by problems with shoddy editing and with the use of anachronistic words. I seriously considered abandoning it.

And yet, somewhere along the way… I ended up kind of liking it. The story got a lot more interesting when the staff and patients of the military hospital at which Jesse worked were abandoned during a retreat from Spain by the creditor-villain guy who was foiled by Jesse’s wedding to Nell. They had to make their way across the country to the Portuguese border, encountering distrustful villagers and crazy noblemen on the way.

I didn’t much care about the romance between Jesse and Nell. More, I liked the traveling companions they had with them. Two were former patients of Jesse’s—conscripted out of a criminal life and neither a particularly good soldier—who end up redeeming themselves and serving as protectors to the surgeon and his wife, and feeling sort of humbled that they’ve managed to earn someone’s good opinion for the first time in their lives. Another is a former French revolutionary who had acted cowardly in the past and likewise redeems himself by a courageous act. By the time Nell’s drunken dad gets around to redeeming himself, however, I was a little tired of that trope.

While I definitely didn’t hate The Wedding Journey, I really can’t see myself seeking out more by this author. There are better things on which to spend my time.

Austenland by Shannon Hale: C

From the back cover:
Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her life. No real man can compare. When a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly becomes more real than she ever could have imagined.

Decked out in empire-waist gowns, stripped of her modern appliances, Jane throws herself into mastering Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen—or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It’s all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to vanish. Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

With humor, charm, and perfect sympathy, award-winning author Shannon Hale delivers a novel that will delight every reader who has ever dreamed of escaping into Austenland.

I hesitate to unequivocally declare this book awful, because it certainly had a few lines that made me giggle (“Argh,” Jane arghed.) but it’s pretty durn crappy. I’d not read any Hale before, and I worry this experience will tinge my perceptions of some YA fantasy I have by her.

Jane, the protagonist, is incredibly annoying. She’s 33 and yet behaves quite like Mia from The Princess Diaries, if that gives you any indication. She is forever swearing about how from now on things will be different in some new way, and of course she paints, and of course the real actors fall in love with her ‘cos she’s not at all like the typical sorts of ladies who frequent the resort, etc.

Most of the supporting cast are bleh. Miss Charming, one of Jane’s fellow visitors to the resort, is revolting, made even more odious by the audiobook format. I did quite like Mr. Nobly, however. He’s Austenland’s Darcy equivalent, and is the only one of the characters to be at all interesting, even though we hardly learn anything at all about the actor behind the role.

The ending is ridiculous, complete with people running after Jane in the airport and everything. I therefore predict that this will be optioned as a film.