Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"The Sharing Knife" by Lois McMaster Bujold

(cover from FantasyBookCritic)

Recently, I finally read the fourth and final volume of Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife fantasy. I read the first three volumes some time ago, before I started this blog, so there aren't any reviews here. Therefore, I thought I'd talk about the whole series now.

Actually, I call it a fantasy, but it was apparently a deliberate romance-fantasy crossover story, as she explained in 2008. Well, I don't read romance novels, but there's frequently a lot of romance in fantasy novels, and even in science fiction. I think that's great. After all, I tend to prefer character-based fiction, and romance is generally a part of our emotional lives.

And Bujold is probably my favorite author. I love her long-running Vorkosigan series of space opera (which, uniquely in my experience, has just gotten better as the series has continued). And her The Curse of Chalion, and its sequels, are some of my all-time favorite fantasies. So my expectations were really high when I bought The Sharing Knife, Volume One: Beguilement in 2006.

And maybe that was why I was so disappointed. It started off great, with very appealing characters (Bujold's specialty). The fantasy was interesting, and, as I say, I usually enjoy romance in fiction. However, this romance between an innocent young teenager and a man almost 40 years older - three times her age! - was far too close to child abuse for me.

Yes, May-December romances aren't uncommon, at least not when the man is the elder. There are biological reasons for that kind of attraction, on both sides. But it's even more common to see an older man preying on young girls. And in this case, Fawn is a complete innocent. Even her name gives that impression. And although she's pregnant at the beginning of the book, the events behind that situation just emphasize her youth and her innocence.

Is this typical in romance novels? It wasn't - quite - child abuse. But as I say, it was way too close for me! And there didn't seem to be any reason for such a huge age discrepancy, either. Dag could have been older and more experienced without needing to be nearly 40 years older, certainly.

I had other, lesser problems with the book, too. Dag is supposed to be this tough, experienced lakewalker, but he gets his only intact arm broken by a sneak thief - apparently so Fawn can help him with intimate tasks - in a way that makes him seem anything but capable. And the last part of the book spends way too much time on marriage preparations.

But this was really the only time that Bujold had disappointed me, so I continued with the series. She was still my favorite author, and I felt she deserved my trust. And truthfully, the second volume was much better. For one thing, I suppose I just got used to the age situation. It wasn't such a disappointment, because I already knew about it in book two. And there was an exciting fantasy adventure in Legacy, plus a clash of cultures, which I always enjoy.

Volume three, Passage, was... puzzling. Dag and Fawn travel down the river, collecting followers. I liked seeing Dag train the youngsters, farmers and lakewalkers alike. That's another theme that's always a favorite with me. But this particular story doesn't really go anywhere. And at the time, I had no idea if there were supposed to be more volumes. (Ordinarily, I guess I expect trilogies, and there was nothing to tell me any differently with this series.) So I wasn't in a big hurry to read this book, Horizon, which really is the conclusion.

In this volume, they're traveling back north - with their followers - when they run into trouble. It's exciting enough, and it ends reasonably. I enjoyed the book. But if I don't seem wild about it, that's because we never do understand what these "malices" are. OK, I know this is fantasy, not science fiction. But I'd still prefer some kind of explanation. We get none.

It's hard to avoid comparing this to The Curse of Chalion, which was incredibly inventive and fully satisfying. (There was a romance between an older man and a young girl in that one, too, but the age difference wasn't nearly so great.) Well, The Curse of Chalion was a masterpiece (and so was the sequel, Paladin of Souls), and I know I can't expect a masterpiece all the time.

From any other author, I'm sure I would have been pleased with The Sharing Knife - at least, once I got over my unhappiness with the first volume. It's an entertaining fantasy with appealing characters. But Lois McMaster Bujold can do much better.


Rena said...

I really didn't see Dag as being a sexual predator. I also don't see Dag and Fawn's relationship as being anything other than equal.

Also...Fawn...isn't as innocent as you seem to think she is--she isn't even as innocent as Dag initially thinks Fawn is.

Bujold is a very hit-or-miss writer when it comes to fantasy. I mostly liked the Sharing Knife universe for the "post apocalyptic fantasy" (I am shamelessly attracted to post-apocalyptic rebuilding themes), and secondarily for the romance aspects. I do wish the series had been more condensed with better pacing however (I think the series could have been reduced to maybe a trilogy.)

WCG said...

I know Dag wasn't a sexual predator, Rena. But the huge age difference between them bothered me, especially considering Fawn's very young age. And I could see absolutely no reason for it. Dag could have been just 10 years older than Fawn with no difference to the story. Some difference in age and experience was necessary, but not to this extreme.

I'm astonished that you say Bujold is "hit-or-miss" when it comes to fantasy, though. "The Curse of Chalion" and it's sequels were just superb. And the only other fantasy she's written, as far as I know, is her early (1992) "The Spirit Ring," which was quite good, too. So where are her "misses"?

Unless you mean that "The Sharing Knife" was a miss? Well, no author can be superb ALL the time. And although I don't think "The Sharing Knife" was great, it was still better than average when it comes to fantasies.