Volume 26, Number 1, Fall 2007

The Sharing Knife: The Beguilement & The Sharing Knife: Legacy

By Lois McMaster Bujold

Eos, 2006/2007
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
Fall 2007

Lois McMaster Bujold established her reputation by writing science fiction. 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). The two volumes of The Sharing Knife continue that turn to fantasy, with a quite different setting. They also carry 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. 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 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 they got their horses, their weapons, and even their food—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—they do have the institution of marriage, though 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 aristocratic, emphasizing 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.

There are some interesting speculative elements and themes in this story—along with supernatural horror, eroticism, and humor. It seems clear that Bujold has wanted to write in this style for a long time, from the tendencies of the later Vorkosigan and Chalion books; in this story she’s felt free to do so.

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