The Sharing Knife Quartet by Lois McMaster Bujold (thoughts)
Forgive me for being rusty.
Back in April, I took a drop spindle class at my local yarn store. I ended up being the only student, and towards the end of the first lesson, my teacher casually mentioned that the heroine of one of her favourite fantasy books spins to pass time. Of course my ears perked right up (fantasy? textile arts? together?), and when I got home I checked my library’s website for The Sharing Knife. It turned out to be a quartet of books, all available in electronic versions, so I averted by eyes from the truly unfortunate covers (an advantage of ereaders), downloaded the first one (Beguilement) and began reading.
I will admit, the opening had me skeptical. A young, small, cute woman named Fawn is on her way to make her fortune in the city, having run away from home. Unfortunately, she meets some trouble on the road, and is rescued from an almost-rape by Dag, a tall, powerful older man who is the loner type. There’s instant chemistry between them. At this point, all of my alarm bells were going off, but I was too comfortable to get up & get another book so I stuck with it a bit longer. And thank God I did: Bujold is definitely a feminist and from that unpromising beginning crafts the story of a relationship that empowers both sides (including Fawn’s sexual empowerment, which is handled with grace and skill), while being set in a fabulous fantasy world inspired by the 19th century US Great Lakes frontier (but without guns). Over the four books, everything from ethnic identity & traditions to culture clashes to patriarchy to individual growth and more turns up. And the story telling is so good: I couldn’t turn the pages quickly enough (thank goodness I could download the next book instantly each time).
A little taste of the world: there are two main ethnic groups. The Lakewalkers are modeled more on Great Lakes area Native Americans (and yes, I realise that there are lots of different tribes, all with their own culture; I apologise for the generalisation): they’ve been living in the area since time immemorial, are traditionally itinerant, moving with the seasons, have community-based ideas of wealth and property, and are matriarchal. They also have this incredibly cohesive cultural tradition all based around one idea: they need to find and destroy any malices that appear. These malices are all that’s left of a technologically and magically advanced culture that existed centuries ago and suddenly collapsed: the Lakewalkers are descended from the survivors, and as such feel guilt for the malices’ existence & obliged to destroy them. Malices appear out of the ground and slowly become bigger and stronger as they feed on life forces around them (plants, animals, humans…anything that’s available): they also morph into different stages, almost like sped up evolution, based on what they’re consuming. If they’re found when they’re young, they’re relatively easy to kill, but if they manage to stay hidden through several ‘molts,’ it becomes more of a challenge. So bands of Lakewalkers patrol all over, but the Lakewalkers are few and so feel constantly harried trying to keep up: young Lakewalkers travel around to different camps, serving in the patrols, with more populous camps sending more patrollers to the sparsely populated areas that also happen to have more malices. There are so many implications of this, and Bujold explores them beautifully: I especially was fascinated by the way this makes having children a key Lakewalker duty and how that plays out in a matriarchal instead of patriarchal society. Either way, only a sharing knife can kill a malice: I won’t tell you how they’re made, as Bujold reveals that at a perfect pace in the first book, but I will say that they are sacred, surrounded by rituals, and essential to Lakewalker culture. Oh, and the Lakewalkers are telepathic: they’re able to read the emotions of everyone around them & keep in touch with each other that way. It’s not exactly like speaking on a telephone, though, and some are born with stronger abilities than others. There’s also a bit of telekinetic ability going on, with Lakewalkers able to connect with both objects and, sometimes, influence others’ thoughts and actions. They can also heal via the mind. They are very insular, holding themselves aloof from the Farmers, whom they often consider inferior.
Farmers are essentially settlers, so the European immigrant equivalent, although in this instance they’re invited on to the land & aren’t trying to kill off the Lakewalkers. Farmers have no telepathic or telekinetic abilities (which means they can’t block Lakewalkers from reading their minds or even controlling them), and many think that malices are bedtime stories. They farm and build towns and create new technology, and they have the patriarchal and individual wealth/property traditions of Europe (younger sons have to go find their fortunes, daughters marry into other families, etc.). In a fun twist, they’re the ones who have nature names, not the Lakewalkers. ;) They are generally horrified by Lakewalkers, considering them cannibals and mind controllers and generally eerie, but once again they almost never talk to them. So stories get passed around instead. While the Farmers lack psychic/magical abilities, they also have far more advanced technology and more comfortable lives than the Lakewalkers, who devote all of the energy to the malice threat.
Due to this lack of general communication, Fawn and Dag’s relationship not only serves as a fabulous romance, but also as a way to explore culture clash. Dag has served on patrols for an unusually long time and has had far more contact with Farmers than most Lakewalkers. Even before he finds a more personal reason to connect with their culture, he’s decided that Lakewalkers should try cooperating with Farmers to make malice hunting easier. After all, malices are most likely to appear on Farmer land, and if Farmers recognised the signs and could alert the Lakewalkers earlier, it would save trouble later. But Lakewalker tradition is all about secrecy & pride & being a ‘chosen people,’ so Dag’s swimming upstream with his arguments.
Oh wow: I’m at one thousand words! I could talk about these books for hours (in fact, does anyone want to do a book club-type read a long/discussion via e-mail? I’d happily reread these: just leave a comment and I’ll set something up), but I’m likely running on too long. I’ll just mention one more thing I adored: while there are dramatic malice battles, I loved how much everyday life Bujold includes. Fawn does typical Farmer tasks, from canning and cooking to spinning and knitting, and even in stressful situations will do things like tidy another woman’s pantry so she won’t feel hopeless on coming up & seeing so many smashed jars. The first two books focus on Farmer and then Lakewalker culture, while the last two have more of a quest feel: in fact, the third book is all about a river journey on a barge down their Mississippi-equivalent! Who can resist a river trip (says the fan of Three Men in a Boat…)? There’s just so much readerly FUN: I kept finding myself squealing with excitement.
These books are both comfort reads and thought-provoking ones, and they quickly launched Bujold into the ranks of my favourite authors. I’ve now read all of her other four fantasy books and am almost through with her first sci fi book; she’s actually known for that sci-fi series rather than her fantasy. I’m not a sci-fi reader, although I realise my inheritant flinching at words like space ships and aliens is just as silly a prejudice as those who flinch at words like magic and gods and thus don’t read fantasy. The fact that I voluntarily began reading a space series with the eyebrow-raising name of the Vorkosigan Saga, and am in fact enjoying every moment of this first book, should tell you how much I love and trust Bujold at this point. I’m even willing to follow her to the edge of the galaxy. ;)
If you’re a thoughtful reader looking for an engaging summer read, or a feminist who enjoys romance, or a fantasy buff tired of medieval Europe inspired setting, I can’t recommend these books highly enough! You will have to overlook the covers (I seriously considered leaving this post image-free), which seem to get worse for each book, but I suspect that you’ll soon find yourself so hooked you won’t care. Even if you don’t usually read fantasy or romance, these books might change your mind. It seems a shame to miss out on such great reads because of a kneejerk reactions to different genres: I almost didn’t use the word ‘romance’ in my post so as not to alienate potential readers. But that seemed to be feeding into the idea that the only way for genre books to be taken seriously is to call them ‘literary’ instead. These are fantasy books, romance books, and full of literary merit. I am so glad to have discovered them and such a wonderful new-to-me author. I’m just surprised she’s not a blogosphere darling already.