Monday, March 9, 2009

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold has been on my list of authors that I know I want to try for a long time. So finally, I've had the opportunity to read the first volume of her Sharing Knife trilogy, which I've heard excellent things about. And despite some trepidation because of my expectations, I'm pleased to report that I did indeed thoroughly enjoy this tale.

I love the characters. I particularly like Dag, but Fawn is good too -- she seems very young to me, but she's supposed to because she is very young. She occasionally teeters on the edge, but she's not TSTL. She's just very young and in a very dangerous world. And she's well aware that she's made stupid mistakes; this is a theme that runs through the book from beginning to end. Fawn has grown up as the youngest of a big farm family, and she's not had an easy time of it, either. Her brothers are merciless, and what I thought was particularly interesting is that Bujold shows us an environment that isn't exactly abusive but that is stunting and damaging to young Fawn nonetheless. It's an important statement, subtly made.

Dag is a patroller, a Lakewalker. He and his folk are separate from the farmers, and they wander the world searching for malices (as a noun). Malices are creatures that drain the areas around them of life; they're intelligent and immortal, and they both make and gather slaves to do their dirty work. Dag's aim in life is to take out as many malices as he possibly can, and he's very good at it. All aspects of it. He's got motives that are not fully revealed right away, and his ability to reveal his past to Fawn (and thus to us) is also part of the journey we're on.

The story is more about Dag and Fawn than it is about some all-important quest, but the quest is there. I can't tell you what it is without spoilers, so I'm not going to try. I'm just going to say, as with all good fantasy trilogies, some things are resolved but a lot is left open at the end of this first volume. I'm both anxious to know, and very nervous to know, what happens next. Because I'm pretty sure that some of it is extremely unpleasant for Dag and Fawn and I really don't like it when characters I like suffer. A bigger problem for me in particular is that I jumped into this one without knowing whether or not there's a happy ending. And I still don't know whether or not there's a happy ending to the trilogy because these characters really have to work for every bit of ground they gain. This is a good thing in a book, it just makes me anxious.

The world we're introduced to in this novel is simply fascinating. The magic of the world is detailed and follows sensible rules which we can understand, or we can understand as well as the characters themselves understand it. The other thing that fascinated me was the history of this world, which is revealed to us bit by bit through Lakewalker legends and Dag's experience. It's one of those worlds where there was a much greater civilization in existence before some major cataclysm centuries ago, and the few people left after the civilizations' collapse are stuck cleaning up the mess. There are parallels between the Lakewalkers and the Dunedin of LotR, but that's okay with me. The difference here is that the Lakewalkers don't know what happened, or why, and they don't know where the malices came from or why either. They just know it's their duty to get rid of the malices before the malices destroy everything.

What Bujold has been able to do here, with her world and the clues that she gives us, is let our own imaginations run wild. I'm actually really curious to know the story behind the collapse of the great civilization of sorceror-lords around the lake. I'm curious to know what they did or didn't do. I'm curious to know where the malices came from. I can make it up myself, if I want. Now, I am not sure whether or not any of this comes clearer, if it's part of the mystery that gets solved as we move through the trilogy. Or perhaps she has plans to write more (maybe she already has, I'm not very familiar with her canon). But this world history, the ensuing cultures, and the politics of those cultures, was one of my favourite things about this book. I don't know that it's a terribly original history, out of possible fantasy world histories, but the way it's handled is masterful.

Another interesting thing about this book is the language that both Fawn and Dag use, and the way Bujold uses punctuation in the dialogue. The characters have a definite dialect. The way they speak is just enough different from the way I speak that I don't quite recognize it. This too is extremely well done, in that it's not difficult to follow, but it's noticeably different from what we might expect from heroes and heroines in a fantasy or a romance. It's a little tricky to find a good example of dialogue that doesn't give anything away and still gives you an idea of what I mean, but let's try this one:

Dag was suddenly mortally tired of mistrustful strangers. He missed his patrol, for all their irritations. He almost missed the irritations, in their comfortable familiarity.

"Hey, Little Spark. I was going to wait for the wagon and take you to Grassforge lying flat, but I got to thinking. We might double up and ride out the way we came in the other day, and you wouldn't be jostled around any worse."

Her face lit. "Better, I should think. That lane would rattle your teeth, in a wagon."

"Even taking it slowly and carefully, we could reach town in about three hours' time. If you think it wouldn't overtire you?"

"Leave now, you mean? I'll pack my bedroll. It'll only take a moment!" She twirled about.

There's something simple and deliberate about it, especially about the way Dag talks. Fawn, on the other hand, true to her character, often skips words or jumps ahead of herself when she's speaking. Both of them have a particular lilt to their speech, and it reinforces who they are, and the fact that they are each their own person. And the fact that they're not from around here. It reinforces the world-building, too.

The book is, overall, well-crafted. The exciting parts are exciting, the scary parts are scary, the sad parts are sad, the sexy parts are sexy -- and tender, and realistic. And none of that is as easy as it sounds to put together, but everything is pitch-perfect. There are little twists and tweaks, scenes that go just slightly differently from expected, but don't stand out like a sore thumb.

I'm trying to figure out why I don't see myself reading this book over and over again, because I don't really have anything negative to say about it. I guess I don't think that anything was strikingly innovative; nothing stuck out like a sore thumb, but nothing stuck out as being particularly blindingly great, either. It doesn't inspire the same bittersweet heartache that Patricia McKillip seems to get from me more often than not, for example.

I really liked this book, and I'm going to get the next one as soon as I drop this one off at the library. I think the first thing I'll be reading about is how Dag's captain handles all the various surprises Dag's about to drop, and I don't think any of them are going to go over well. And I imagine it's going to be painful. But I still want to know.


Marg said...

I've just borrowed this book from the library. I have heard lots of good things about her books but have never picked them up before.

Unknown said...

You are in the same spot I was, then! I'm interested to hear someone else's perspective; I'm still puzzling on why it didn't feel quite as good as I wanted it to be.