Review: Series: The Sharing Knife
Lois McMaster Bujold is easily one of my favorite authors, from her Hugo Award winning PALADIN OF SOULS (Amazon) to the immensely popular Miles Vorkosigan series. When she began The Sharing Knife series I was excited to see her writing new fantasy, and picked up BEGUILEMENT when it first came out in paperback in 2007. The fourth and final book, HORIZON, was released in paperback this past January.
If you liked PALADIN OF SOULS this new series may pique your interest: like PALADIN it has a love story, magic, fascinating characters, and a well-developed setting. However, if you’re a fan of Miles and the excitement and high adventure he usually falls into, The Sharing Knife may be too leisurely to grab your attention.
That isn’t to say the series isn’t well written or interesting, because it is. Bujold’s prose is among the best in speculative fiction today, and this series is no exception. She knows how to paint a picture that flows authentically from her PoV characters. The Earth-like world feels real, from the harsh climes of the north, to the expanses of farmland, to life along the river. And, as always, the magic is subtly woven into the story.
But since it’s a story about two people who fall in love and get married, many male readers may never get past book one. Oh well, their loss.
Dag is a Lakewalker, a nomadic people with a purpose: to hunt down and rid the world of ‘malices’. A malice is an immortal monster that appears at random to consume everything around it, and the only way to kill it is with a Lakewalker sharing knife, which is made using their magic ‘groundsense’. Anyone not a Lakewalker is considered a farmer, and are treated as inferiors since they have no groundsense of their own. Dag has been patrolling for over thirty years and taken part in nearly as many malice kills, making him a legend among his own people. At the start of BEGUILEMENT, Dag is foundering, his tragic past weighing him down.
Fawn crosses paths with Dag during a routine patrol gone chaotic with the discovery of a new malice not far from her family’s farm. She’s almost killed by the malice, but Dag saves her, and for the first time in her life she’s admired and taken seriously. So begins their unlikely romance, much to the dismay of their families–and not only because of the age difference, but because they come from two different worlds.
Bujold's prose, worldbuilding, and characters are worth your time and effort in her Sharing Knife series.
The story isn’t all about the romance, equal time is spent on groundsense: the subtle magic that Lakewalkers rely on to tell them about the world and people around them. Groundsense is the natural manipulation of their environment, from healing to sensing surroundings to strengthening their handiwork. Dag takes an unconventional approach to his magic as he struggles to innovate in order to solve problems previously thought to be insurmountable. As a result of his magical discoveries, Dag realizes how he can begin to heal the rift of distrust between Lakewalker and farmer–recognizing that none of his progress is possible without his farmer bride Fawn at his side.
Each book builds on the previous ones, with new information about the setting and magic expanding our knowledge of the world and its inhabitants. BEGUILEMENT (Amazon) sets the tone for the series, as well as the foundation for the setting and its characters. LEGACY (Amazon) deals mostly with the problems associated with Dag and Fawn’s Lakewalker-farmer relationship. PASSAGE (Amazon) is the weakest and slowest of the novels because it’s even more character and setting driven as Dag tries to solve problems with his groundsense. The series momentum doesn’t really get rolling until the last half of HORIZON (Amazon), with its meaningful climax and tidy resolution.
Unfortunately, the series may disappoint Bujold fans, and her new fantasy readers would be better served to begin with the excellent THE CURSE OF CHALION (Amazon). While I enjoyed the romance between the fascinating Dag and Fawn, as well as the details of how groundsense works, Bujold takes too long to tell the overarching story. The excitement potential with the malice troubles is spread too thin and the pacing may frustrate readers who want to see a quicker payoff. The four-part series breaks up awkwardly between the books (likely because it was originally planned as a duet) and would have been better if it had been written as a more streamlined trilogy.
If you like beautiful prose, world-building, complex characters, the nitty-gritty of what makes magic work, and you’re patient enough for a satisfying conclusion, then this series is worth reading. If you prefer Miles-like action-packed craziness, then not so much.
- Recommended Age: 16+
- Language: Tame
- Violence: A few fights with monsters or bandits, but not particularly graphic
- Sex: In the first and second book there are a handful of detailed, but tasteful scenes. The later books mostly have innuendo.
Great review. I think you parsed how Bujold fans would divide on this very nicely.
Personally, I always thought the story would lead to the land where 'it all started'. But we got bupkis. Follow up?
When I read the series I got the feeling that Bujold was trying to avoid something with an epic feel, that she wanted to write something more character driven. As a result, going back to the origins of the Lakewalkers was probably beyond the scope of the series, as fascinating as it would have been. Will she follow up? Who knows. With the way her Chalion books are loosely connected, but set in the same world, it's not beyond possibility that she'll revisit this one in the future?
I really enjoyed the first book but the second book bored me and left me uninterested in completing the series. I have enjoyed Bujold's other fantasy books though and intend to start on her science fiction books sometime soon.
“But since it's a story about two people who fall in love and get married, many male readers may never get past book one. Oh well, their loss.”
You nailed me. This is from someone whose old online handle has been vor_lord since the 90s. I think for me I just was too embarrassed to be carrying around a book that was marketed as a romance novel. Then I found it WAS a romance novel, in a much more complete way than Bujold's other fantasy works.
Any fan of the Vorkosigan series should not be surprised though… the last two books in that series definitely started heading towards the schmaltz.
Yes, A CIVIL CAMPAIGN was definitely a departure from Miles' earlier adventures. I can see why it would annoy the fans. *I* liked it, though.
Thanks very much for the excellent review, Vanessa. I look forward to reading others you'll be writing.
Really was very intrigued by the magic and setting when reading the first book. But the 'handful of detailed but tasteful scenes' looked more like a full chapter of sex ed to me. Didn't finish the second book as within a chapter or two it jumped right back into the topic.
Was really getting the vibe that Bujold was trying to demystify sex or had acquired some social agenda to promote multiple partners for practical experience or something.
Thank you for your review. So glad I didn't try to skip over and hold on for the story line.