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Volume 27, Number 1, Fall 2008

The Sharing Knife: The Beguilement
The Sharing Knife: Legacy
The Sharing Knife: Passage

By Lois McMaster Bujold

EOS, 2006/2007/2008
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

Lois McMaster Bujold established her reputation by writing science fiction—primarily the Vorkosigan series, though LFS members may be more interested in Falling Free, which is only tangentially linked to it. An early fantasy novel, The Spirit Ring, attracted relatively little notice. More recently, she turned to fantasy, with the three Chalion novels (not a “trilogy” or a series, but independent stories sharing a setting). Her new series The Sharing Knife continues that turn to fantasy, with a quite different setting. It also carries another shift in Bujold’s writing further: Her fiction has always had crossover appeal to romance readers, and starting with the later Vorkosigan novels (especially Komarr and A Civil Campaign), romantic themes and relationships became a major focus of her writing, but The Sharing Knife could be described as a full-blown romance that happens to take place in a fantasy setting—a “paranormal romance,” as the publishing industry calls this category.

The fantastic element in this setting is a psychic sensitivity called “groundsense.” This seems to be imaginatively inspired by the Gaia Hypothesis, which views the Earth as a living entity—or, more precisely, on the scientific findings that inspired the Gaia Hypothesis, such as the difference between soil on Earth, which is pervaded with life and organic matter, and regolith on the other terrestrial planets, which has neither (a difference whose implications Robert A. Heinlein examined at length in Farmer in the Sky). Some people have groundsense, enabling them to perceive their own and each other’s bodies, other living things, and the soil itself and to do “magical” things with them. Far in the past there was a high civilization with advanced magical skills based on groundsense; the setting of The Sharing Knife is a postapocalyptic one, the world left behind after that civilization destroyed itself. Its main supernatural threat, called “malices,” are cancerous entities that grow out of traces of magical pollution (in both the environmentalist sense and the older ritual and tabu sense) and consume “ground”; what they leave behind is dead ground—in effect, soil returned to regolith, only to be restored slowly, from the edges in.

A threat requires countermeasures, and in this setting those are provided by the Lakewalkers, a relic of the ancient aristocracy. Fantasy readers are likely to be reminded of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Dunedain, not just in general concept but in many details: long lives, unusual tallness, magical talents, preservation of ancient memories, and isolation from the people they guard and protect, who tend to mistrust or even fear them. But Bujold has envisioned her “rangers” in much more ethnographic detail. To start with, where Tolkien always left the Dunedain’s economic base vague—where did they get their horses, their weapons, or even their food? Did they have houses somewhere, or spend all their time roaming the wild?—Bujold shows an economy suited to nomads who have to carry everything they own on horseback. For her Lakewalkers, land is not private property, but common property—in the style of ancient Roman law, where anyone can use or pass over common property, but no one can permanently occupy or appropriate it. This concept is unsuited to farming societies, and the Lakewalkers seem to be very sophisticated hunter/gatherers rather than farmers. The majority of them support the frontline combatants who battle the malices, rather than doing battle themselves. Their kinship system is matrilineal, with descent traced from mother to daughter and from uncle to nephew, perhaps reflecting their nonownership of land—though they do have the institution of marriage, apparently conceived as a partnership rather than as male proprietorship of women’s fertility. They also seem to be sexually sophisticated in a style that would have appalled Aragorn, accepting same-sex relationships and ménages á trois casually. Groundsense apparently enhances their sexual skills as well, which is an asset for characters in a romance novel.

But this wouldn’t be much of a romance without obstacles to the lovers’ happiness. Many of these come from the estrangement between the Lakewalkers and the people they defend, called simply Farmers. Farmer culture is focused on owning and working land, which is inherited patrilineally, from father to son, making legitimacy and monogamy vitally important. Farmers and Lakewalkers are capable of falling in love, sexual intercourse, and bearing each other’s children, but the clash between their marital customs ensures that most such relationships end tragically. Bujold’s plot tension comes largely from the efforts to bridge this gap. It’s tempting to describe Farmers as “conservative”—in a lot of ways they look like an analog of nineteenth century American farm communities—but in fact the Lakewalkers are every bit as conservative, and her Lakewalker hero and Farmer heroine are welcome as a couple in neither culture. Instead they have to create their own form for a lasting relationship through their own personal choices.

In a sense, the Lakewalker conservatism is that of aristocrats; they have the emphasis on bloodlines and the sense of tradition and duty. But they’re a peculiar sort of aristocrats: noble men and women who don’t rule, or command armies of Farmer conscripts, or collect rents or taxes. They do consider the Farmer communities to be their own creation, part of their effort to reclaim ground blighted by malices, but rather than owning or controlling these communities, they leave them to grow by themselves, gaining benefits from them partly through voluntary trade, and partly from gifts made by Farmers they’ve saved from supernatural attacks. This seems like an idealized image of noble lineages, if an interesting one for libertarians, but at the same time it fits the hunter/gatherer lifestyle Bujold portrays. And, of course, a hero from a noble lineage falling in love with a commoner heroine is one of the classic plotlines of romance, going back at least to Jane Eyre.

Readers who dislike the conventions of romance novels probably should pass these novels by. But if that’s not a barrier for you, you’ll find some interesting speculative elements and themes in this story—along with supernatural horror, eroticism, and even humor. It seems clear that Bujold has wanted to write in this style for a long time, from the tendencies of the later Vorkosigan books and the Chalion books; in this story she’s felt free to do so.

The first two volumes of The Sharing Knife were mainly a love story in a fantasy setting. The third volume, Passage, continues that story, but with a change of emphasis: away from love and toward work and politics. This appears to be an entirely conscious decision on Bujold’s part; in a talk she gave earlier this year, which I attended, she said that writing this series had convinced her that themes of political agency were central to fantasy and science fiction, and that in its third and fourth volumes she was turning from the personal focus of romance to the political focus of fantasy. Though in this volume, at least, it’s politics in the small: the building of community by people uprooted from their own (which, come to think of it, could be a metaphor for science fiction fandom in general).

Something became clear to me as I read this third volume, which I hadn’t seen so clearly in the first two. Tolkien described his “sub-creation” as an attempt to give England its own mythology. In somewhat the same way, this series could be described as creating an American mythology. In this story, in particular, Bujold gives us a fantasy analog of one of the greatest American novels, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A mixed group of people traveling down a long river on a flat-bottomed boat, having adventures and getting to know each other. In a note at the end, Bujold mentions some of her historical and biographical sources, and they’re accounts of life on the Mississippi and of the American frontier—which is, in fact, the central American myth: a story not of people but of landscape.

Bujold’s world has its own frontier: lands left desolate and uninhabitable by a great magical blight, and now, centuries later, starting to recover. With their recovery, settlers start to move in, only to be threatened by residues of the ancient blight: beings called “malices” that can exist only as parasites, draining the life out of people, their communities, and the land itself. A remnant of ancient sorcerers, the Lakewalkers, patrol the wilderness, living apart from the farmers, and trying to guard them from malices; inconveniently, the farmers are resistant to being kept from clearing new land, or evicted from land they’ve cleared, much as early Americans resisted British attempts to keep them from colonizing the interior. And in this novel, we see another aspect of frontier life: the threat not of supernatural evil but of human outlawry. In a sense, this volume is a Western, focused on the hero who comes to the defense of a community at the mercy of bandits.

The Lakewalkers trace their descent to magically gifted aristocrats of a fallen empire, and they still have aristocratic attitudes: pride of descent, resistance to interbreeding with farmers, mistrust of commerce, avoidance of certain types of labor. Above all, they live to give their lives fighting against malices. But they’re aristocrats without political power, and that’s where Passage takes on a curiously libertarian slant. Midway through, the novel’s hero comments, “There are no lords here. The gods are absent.” And the heroine, now his wife, answers, “You know, it sounds real attractive at first, but I’m not sure I’d want lords and gods fixing the world. Because I think they’d fix it for them. Not necessarily for me.” This society without a ruling class is perhaps the aspect of these books that has the strongest American flavor, and the greatest departure from the fantasied kings, knights, and courtly institutions of more traditional fantasy. The greatest dread of this novel’s hero is turning into a lord, able to wield power over lesser men; and repeatedly, Bujold confronts him with examples of the things he fears he might turn into.

Reading this series may be disorienting for some science fiction fans; the strongly personal focus of the first two volumes may come across as a lack of substance—at least, of the sort of substance science fiction readers expect. In the third volume, we’re back on more familiar science-fictional ground, with the central characters taking actions that aim to transform the world, however slowly. And that, too, is something libertarians certainly can sympathize with.

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