Friday Reads: The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, by Lois McMaster Bujold
For some reason I’ve been very slow in getting into Lois McMaster Bujold’s work; despite reading and enjoying Ethan of Athos many years ago, and loving The Curse of Chalion, it wasn’t until this year that I went beyond that. I was in a mood to read some SF as a palate-cleanser after so much fantasy, so I started her Miles Vorkosigan series at the beginning (of which more another day). Then I discovered there was a one-day conference on her work being held here in Cambridge just after WorldCon (when I happen to be off work), so I decided I’d better read more of her books before going! I bought a couple more of the SF series in ebook form, then remembered that her entire four-book fantasy series The Sharing Knife was gathering dust on my bookshelves (I bought them several years ago, from a work colleague).
The Sharing Knife is very different from your typical European-inspired fantasy – like Peter V Brett’s Demon Cycle, it has a very rural American flavour, like The Little House on the Prairie with monsters. However, whereas Brett’s series is all about the fight against the monsters, The Sharing Knife is basically a romance with a bit of monster-bashing on the side. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; Bujold is such a good writer that she can hook you with charming characters and domestic squabbles as easily as with heart-pounding action.
I guess a brief summary is in order at this point! The first book in the series, Beguilement, follows the adventures of young runaway Fawn Bluefield, who encounters the semi-nomadic people known as Lakewalkers and falls in love with one of them. However the path of true love never did run smoothly, as the Bard once said, and this is certainly true in Fawn’s case: not only are the Lakewalkers and farmers highly suspicious of one another, but the Lakewalkers’ raison d’être is to eliminate “malices” – unpleasant magical beings that bend animals and humans to their will and blight the land. After a near-fatal encounter with a malice, Fawn is nursed back to health by her Lakewalker rescuer, and the second half of the book is dominated by this romance plot.
On the fantasy side, Bujold presents an interesting cultural contrast between farmers and Lakewalkers. The former are your familiar Western (in both senses of the word) society – patriarchal, conservative and prudish – whereas the Lakewalkers are egalitarian and have a laid-back attitude to sex that’s quite a revelation to the aptly-named ingenue, Fawn. There’s nothing especially new in this scenario – I was reading books with similar settings back in the eighties – but the richness of Bujold’s characterisation and worldbuilding takes the whole thing up a notch. The Lakewalkers in particular have a complex culture that is not without its dark side, which makes a refreshing change from the series’ predecessors, which were often simplistic and overly utopian.
Culture clash seems to be a running theme in Bujold’s work, since (at least in the books that I’ve read so far), the Miles Vorkosigan series often highlights the cultural differences between the archaic Barrayarans with their aristocratic government and sexist attitudes, and the pacifistic egalitarian Betans. I think this is one reason I enjoy Bujold’s work so much; SFF is such a great genre for exploring cultural differences, but too many writers use culture as window-dressing (or ignore it altogether).
As for the romance, to be honest if it’s not your thing, you’ll probably find this book boring. Personally I loved it: the lead characters are charming, the chemistry between them totally believable, and the fact that neither culture is going to welcome their relationship provides more than enough tension to keep you turning the pages to find out how it all gets resolved.
If I have one gripe, it’s that Bujold is overly reliant on “damsel in distress” scenarios (and seems particularly fixated on threats to pregnant women), but at least she doesn’t fridge female characters out of the blue (Brett, I’m looking at you…), and her heroines are no shrinking violets either. Fawn may be ignorant and lacking in self-esteem owing to her youth and upbringing, but contact with new ideas allows her to blossom, and except in the literal physical sense she can never be described as weak.
Overall I really enjoyed this book, and the sequel is riding high in my TBR list. But first I need to catch up on some more Miles, not to mention all the other books I’ve bought and not read yet. Sometimes I wish the day was twenty-six hours long, as it is on Barrayar!