The Sharing Knife Volume 1: Beguilement, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Thursday, March 29, 2007

I've been meaning to read more Lois McMaster Bujold books for ages, ever since I read Shards of Honor. When I finished that one, I was all fired up to keep reading, but I had some trouble finding an affordable copy of the next book. That problem is solved now (most, if not all her books are available as e-books), but by the time this happened, I'd become a bit overwhelmed by the length of the Vorkosigan series.

I decided to read The Curse of Chalion instead (influenced by jmc's love of it), but before I started it, I read some very intriguing comments about The Sharing Knife Volume 1: Beguilement, and started it instead.

Troubled young Fawn Bluefield seeks a life beyond her family’s farm. But en route to the city, she encounters a patrol of Lakewalkers, nomadic soldier–sorcerers from the northern woodlands. Feared necromancers armed with mysterious knives made of human bone, they wage a secret, ongoing war against the scourge of the "malices," immortal entities that draw the life out of their victims, enslaving human and animal alike.

It is Dag—a Lakewalker patroller weighed down by past sorrows and onerous present responsibilities—who must come to Fawn’s aid when she is taken captive by a malice. They prevail at a devastating cost—unexpectedly binding their fates as they embark upon a remarkable journey into danger and delight, prejudice and partnership . . . and perhaps even love.
It took me the longest time to decide how to grade this book. Vol.1: Beguilement and Vol. 2: Legacy are not book and sequel, they're really two halves of a very long book. Well, duh, you say, couldn't you guess that from the fact that they're called Vol. 1 and Vol. 2? Well, no, I'm an idiot. I just assumed the whole Volume thing was some kind of affectation. *shrugs* My bad for not doing enough research, but the fact remains that I wish I'd known and waited until July to read them both together.

Read as a single book, Beguilement feels very unbalanced. The action is all at the beginning, and it's pretty fast-paced and exciting. Then the rest of the book is purely about the hero and heroine falling in love and working on the world accepting the seeming mismatch. I loved both parts, especially the second, as a good romance reader, but it still felt weird that there was nothing else about the rest. The external threat doesn't show up again at all. Obviously, we'll get that in the second book, but the fact remains that there's not even a small, intermediate climactic moment. So technically, I'd say this book is pretty flawed.

But you know what? I rate books for my enjoyment of them, not really for technical considerations, and this first volume of The Sharing Knife is a good example of it. I loved it, totally adored reading it, even as I saw the flaws. So I'll have to go with an A-.

Ok, on to the actual story. Our hero, Dag, is a Lakewalker patroller. The Lakewalkers are a separate cultural group (and also a different race, I believe) from what they call the farmers; i.e. the regular, mundane humans. The main difference seems to be that through time, the Lakewalkers have been able to retain a kind of mystical connection with the forces underlying all matter, whether inanimate or alive. They can sense these forces and sometimes even manipulate them. It's hard to explain, you'd have to read the book to really understand As it is, most farmers don't get this at all, and it, together with the Lakewalkers' main activity, have won them a reputation for black magic.

This main activity of the Lakewalker patrols is to rid the land of malices. Just what is a malice? Well, we don't get all the answers here, but they seem to be mysterious forces that periodically rise up and grow, blighting more and more land around them. A malice kills everything alive that it comes in contact with. More than kills: it even leeches inanimate objects of their "ground", that force of them that the Lakewalkers sense. Left unchecked, a malice could conceivably eat up the whole world.

Malices are not easy to destroy. The only way to get rid of them is with what the Lakewalkers call "sharing knifes". Bujold has crated a fascinating concept here: these malices are immortal in that they don't know how to die, so, to kill them, one needs to teach them how. Thus the sharing knife, which is "activated" or "loaded" with the death of a person. Don't think gruesome thoughts of human sacrifices here... Lakewalkers simply always carry an inactive sharing knife with them, and when they're at the edge of death, they simply speed the process by actually causing it with this knife, activating it in the process.

So, before I disgressed and started talking about how this world works, I mentioned that Dag is a Lakewalker patroller. As the story starts, he's hunting a malice with his patrol. Fawn, the heroine, is a young farmer's daughter who's run away from home after becoming pregnant by one of the neighbours. To cut a long story short (and I really, really need to learn to write shorter!), Fawn finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and she and Dag end up facing the malice together.

And during this confrontation, something unheard of happens: Fawn manages to accidentally activate the inactive sharing knife Dag was carrying. This is done in such a way that gives Fawn some moral right over this knife, and so, after consultation with Dag's patrol's leader, it is determined that both she and the knife will travel with Dag to consult with an expert maker of knives, so that the events and its repercussions can be truly understood.

As long as it took me to write it, this all happens relatively early in the story, and that's about it for the external plot. The malices fade into the background completely, and for the rest of the book, we get to see Dag and Fawn's relationship develop into love. We also learn more about this strange and intriguing world, and most especially about Lakewalker/farmer relations.

Because romances between the two groups happen, but they're not meant to last, not like Dag and Fawn soon decide they want theirs to. They'll have to face a lot of opposition from both sides, and not just because of their different origins, but because of the significant age difference between them.

In this Volume 1, we explore the resistance among the farmers, Fawn's family, and we see how out protagonists manage to win them over. I'm not sure, but from what's going on when the book ends, I suspect in Volume 2 we'll be moving into Lakewalker territory, and that the opposition will be just as adamant.

Without much plot left, Beguilement becomes a quiet, romantic book, and I loved every minute. It's the wonderful main characters that carry the book. My first impulse was to say "Dag", not "the main characters", and I fear I was making the same mistake Fawn's family made and underestimating her. She's quite wonderful on her own, but in a less-than-obvious way. I loved the way she grows in this book from a scared young girl to a woman willing to face the entire world over her love.

As for Dag... ahhh, Dag. Most of the reviews I've read are by long-time Bujold readers, and they draw some fascinating parallels between Dag and her other heroes. Being a novice Bujold reader and more into romance than anything else, I'll make a different comparison. Dag reminded me a lot of some Carla Kelly heros. It's the honour and gruff kindness and weariness, together with the less-than-perfect appearance and the unassuming demeanor. Dag is the very opposite of the arrogant, all-knowing alpha, and he has plenty of vulnerabilities.

I even loved the May-December aspect of the romance. It actually surprises me that it works so well, because I tend to find dramatic age differences icky, and Dag is much older than Fawn... much, much older. He's got even more years on her in life experience, too, because Fawn has always lived quite a sheltered life. The reason it didn't matter to me is that I never got the feeling Dag was drawn to Fawn's innocence or purity, or anything else creepy like that. I truly believed he'd fallen in love with the inner woman, the "spark" from which his nickname for her arose.

This is actually a pretty hot romance, which surprises me, because I don't think this is the usual for Bujold. As it is, I think many romance authors should take notes, because her love scenes are fantastic. Hell, some erotica authors should read her and take note on how to create sex scenes with emotional connections.

Put this one in your TBR, even if you're not a regular fantasy reader. Just don't read it yet; wait until July!


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