The Sharing Knife: Horizon by Lois McMaster Bujold: B-

From the front flap:
In a world where malices—remnants of ancient magic—can erupt with life-destroying power, only soldier-sorcerer Lakewalkers have mastered the ability to kill them. But Lakewalkers keep their uncanny secrets and themselves from the farmers they protect, so when patroller Dag Redwing Hickory rescued farmer girl Fawn Bluefield, neither expected to fall in love, join their lives in marriage, or defy both their kin to seek new solutions to the perilous split between their peoples.

Fawn and Dag see that their world is changing, and the traditional Lakewalker practices cannot hold every malice at bay forever. Yet for all the customs that the couple has challenged thus far, they will soon be confronted by a crisis exceeding their worst imaginings, one that threatens their Lakewalker and farmer followers alike. Now the pair must answer in earnest the question they’ve grappled with since they killed their first malice together: when the old traditions fail disastrously, can their untried new ways stand against their world’s deadliest foe?

If I didn’t like Dag and Fawn, The Sharing Knife: Horizon would be one of the most boring books I’ve ever read.

Having reached the end of their river voyage, Dag and Fawn pause long enough to witness the marriage of Whit and Berry before parting ways with Fawn’s brother and his new bride and heading to New Moon Cutoff, a Lakewalker camp where a renowned medicine maker, Arkady Waterbirch, lives. There, Dag finds an explanation for some of his abilities that is far more positive than the dark alternatives he’d been fearing and apprentices with the fastidious Arkady for several months.

Arkady is opposed to Dag practicing medicine on “farmers,” but when a child stricken with lockjaw needs his help, Dag goes willingly, knowing that he might be sacrificing the incredibly valuable apprenticeship as a result. The boy survives, but Dag’s actions throw New Moon camp into a tizzy so he decides to head back up north with newly pregnant Fawn rather than succumb to the restrictions the camp leader wants to oppose on him. A little way down the road, he’s joined by Arkady, staging his own protest against the leader’s decision.

Along the way they acquire various traveling companions—farmers and Lakewalkers both—until their party numbers more than two dozen. Dag fashions a trio of necklaces designed to help veil farmers’ grounds and protect them against malices. These are put to the test right at the end of the book when the party stumbles upon a particularly awful malice and Fawn (with help from Whit and Berry) proves again how resourceful and useful farmers can be if allowed to help. The implication is that the tale of this deed will spread far and wide and help foster a sense of cooperation between the two peoples.

Most of the book focuses on what Dag is learning and, true, it can be kind of interesting sometimes. Bujold has created an admirably consistent world for her characters to inhabit, so all of the detail about the healing techniques Dag is learning pretty much makes sense. It’s just that the narrative moves so slowly. I never do particularly well with a story whose whole plot is, “And then they walked a lot,” and that’s essentially what this book becomes in its second half.

Also, there’s too many characters at the end. Some of the new ones are interesting—I’m fond of Dag’s patroller niece, Sumac, and I can see why the half-Lakewalker siblings Calla and Indigo are important as a preview of what Dag and Fawn’s own children might be like—but many are nondescript. It’s easy to forget some of them are even there; I certainly did so more than once.

Ultimately, I did enjoy The Sharing Knife series and, though it’s easy to fault it for being too long and rambly, I don’t have any particular recommendations for how it could be made shorter.

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

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

From the front flap:
Young Fawn Bluefield and soldier-sorcerer Dag Redwing Hickory have survived magical dangers and found, in each other, love and loyalty. But even their strength and passion cannot overcome the bigotry of their own kin, and so, leaving behind all they have known, the couple sets off to find fresh solutions to the perilous split between their peoples.

But they will not journey alone, as they acquire comrades along the way. As the ill-assorted crew is tested and tempered on its journey to where great rivers join, Fawn and Dag will discover surprising new abilities both Lakewalker and farmer, a growing understanding of the bonds between themselves and their kinfolk, and a new world of hazards both human and uncanny.

After one book taking place primarily in the farmer world and another that focuses on Lakewalker life, Passage, the third book in The Sharing Knife series, finds Dag and Fawn working to bring those two worlds closer together. Having witnessed the loss of life caused by farmers’ ignorance of the warning signs of a forming Malice, and not willing to stay at a camp at which the validity of his marriage is questioned, Dag gives up his patroller life and decides to become an ambassador of sorts, explaining some of the most fundamental Lakewalker secrets to what farmers as will listen.

After a brief stay with Fawn’s family, Dag and Fawn (along with her brother, Whit) hit the road, visiting a few towns and eventually booking passage on the Fetch, a flatboat headed downriver to the sea. From there, they encounter a variety of (mostly) likable characters, like Berry (boss of the Fetch), Remo and Barr (a pair of disgraced young patrollers), and a bevy of other boatmen. Dag performs several impressive feats of healing, works out some finer details of groundwork, ponders some troubling questions, and makes a lot of rather repetitive speeches. The action picks up a little when Berry’s search for her missing father, brother, and fiancé yields some unexpected results, and Dag is ultimately forced to question whether farmers and Lakewalkers aren’t better off living separate lives after all.

Although parts of Passage are quite slow—like the speeches and the many discussions on the ethics of Dag’s developing abilities—it’s still my favorite of the series thus far, a factor I attribute mostly to the influx of new people. Suddenly, a series that has been almost exclusively about two characters has developed an ensemble cast, and I find it to be a big improvement. My favorite of the new characters is actually not so new—Fawn’s brother Whit has been around before, but really becomes a new person due to the things he sees and experiences on this journey.

Whit’s growth also serves a handy example for one of my favorite things about the series: women’s roles. Bujold manages to show women in positions of power—boat captains, patrol leaders—about as often as women living more domestic lives without making a judgment about which has more value. Whit, having grown up on a farm, is used to men being in charge, and early on accuses Fawn of being “just a girl.” Dag expertly turns this around to talk about all of the brave and valiant things his first wife, Kauneo, accomplished when she was “just a girl.” After witnessing Fawn’s practical cleverness on several occasions, and having his notions of gender roles challenged by Berry, with whom he falls in love, Whit comes to value Fawn’s input in a way that the rest of her family does not.

Despite enjoying Passage quite a bit, I find I have some trepidations about Horizon, the fourth and final volume in the series. I do like Dag and Fawn, but they weren’t the main attraction for me this time. I hope Berry, Whit, Remo, and Barr have significant roles in Horizon else I shall be disappointed.

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

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.

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.