After reading Lois McMaster Bujold‘s first Chalion book, I was an instant fan (see review above). So, I was really excited to get my hands on the audio versions of the first two novels in her second fantasy series: The Sharing Knife.
Alas, it really pains me to have to write a lackluster review for anything Bujold does, but here we go.
First, let me say that Beguilement is a romance novel, as clearly stated by Bujold herself on her website:
The Sharing Knife is a romance-fantasy-action/adventure-social-drama-psychological study. (Or you could just call it a Bujold book.) But the two main characters and their relationship and how it changes each of their lives is the core of the story, so if you had to pick only one element by which to label the book, it’s a romance. (Except on the spine, where it will be labeled “fantasy”.) … The results came out rather different than my other high fantasy, more so than I really expected,… Really, there’s no excuse for this book; I just wrote what I liked. At this point I have no idea what readers are going to make of it, but I can hope that enough of them will share my tastes.
And, indeed, it is a romance. In short, Fawn is not respected by her family. She is teased and called “stupid” by her parents and big brothers. She has gotten herself in some trouble, so she runs away from home. She manages to get herself in some more trouble when she meets the minions of a “malice,” a creature which sucks the life out of nearby living objects and can only be killed by sharing knives which are made of human bones and are primed by a human’s death (someone has to give their life to the knife). Fortunately, Dag comes along with his knives and saves Fawn’s life a couple of times. Because of an unexpected occurrence with the knives, Fawn and Dag find themselves traveling together. During that time Dag realizes that even though Fawn is extremely naive, she’s actually very bright. And a relationship develops…
Second, let me mention that I really disliked the voice of the audiobook reader, Bernadette Dunn. I have heard her before (Memoirs of a Geisha) and I liked her then, but that was a novel about a Geisha. Her voice doesn’t work for Beguilement. It’s too feminine, so the parts of the novel that were written with the male point of view (Dag) make him sound wimpy and weak. The voice she used for the female (Fawn) was too naive-sounding, hickish, syrupy, whiny, and often downright cloying.
Two strikes already, but Bujold clearly warns me that it’s a romance, and she can’t control the voice of the audiobook reader, so I won’t fault her for those issues. And, as usual, Bujold’s writing is superb. Her characters are well realized (she’s very good at letting us view their inner thoughts) and dialogue is realistic.
Here are my main problems with Beguilement:
1. Fawn is unbelievably naive and has low self-esteem (I should have guessed it by her name!). This does not make for a fun or admirable heroine. Her family tells her she’s stupid, so she thinks she’s stupid. She whines and uses the word “stupid” a lot. I’m guessing that Bujold is trying to impart the lesson that when parents tell kids they are stupid, the kids end up with low self-esteem. Hey, I’m a psychologist, and I’m in total agreement with Ms Bujold’s philosophy, but it was getting to the point where I was wondering if Richard Rahl was going to show up and start lecturing about Fawn’s nobility of spirit.
2. Dag, while likeable, is MUCH older than Fawn. I mean like decades. It’d be like Hannah Montana with Phil Collins. That’s a little creepy.
3. The magic system is really interesting (as Bujold’s magic always is). The malices are fascinating, but after the first encounter with one early in the plot, we are treated to no more of these interactions. The rest of the book is slowly pushed along by dialogue, romance, and wedding preparations rather than action.
For someone looking for a chatty romance, I’m sure Bujold is way better than most everything on the romance shelves. But for someone who is expecting the greatness of Chalion, sadly, this isn’t it. However, I do wonder if now that we’ve got the romance out of the way, might she return to the problem of the malices in book two? Now that Fawn and Dag are together, might Fawn have more self-confidence and be a more interesting heroine? Just in case, I think I’ll try Legacy. I wouldn’t want to miss any excellent Bujold fantasy.
Beguilement is the first in a series of four books set in kind of a frontier-era America with magic, what seems to be either an alternate version of our history or a post-apocalyptic world that has reverted back to a 19th century level of technology. There’s a major social division between the farmers and the Lakewalkers, who (for better or worse) seem to be an analog of Native Americans, and who hold all of the human magical powers in this society. The Lakewalkers are charged with the duty of killing “malices,” which are really horrible sort of zombie-like monsters with serious magical and mental control powers, and which periodically rise out of the earth and cause mass death and destruction before the Lakewalkers kill them off with the eponymous sharing knives, magical knives made of Lakewalker thigh bones (eww?).
Fawn is a young farmer girl, about 18 years old, pregnant and running away from home, when she has the extreme bad luck of running into a malice and its army of brain-controlled servants. At the last minute she’s saved by Dag, a Lakewalker in his 50’s who is missing one of his hands from a run-in with a malice-controlled wolf several years ago. He takes care of her injuries and takes her to the nearest large town, and despite the really serious age difference between them, and a major taboo on both sides against farmer/Lakewalker relationships, an attraction grows.
This is an interesting fantasy world with some unique and intriguing magical twists, but this first book in the series does focus heavily on the development of the romantic relationship, which some people will enjoy and others not at all. I’m not a fan of May/December relationships but, to give it some credit, at least the book doesn’t handwave the problem. (There’s also some talk about how Lakewalkers are much longer-lived than farmers, but whatever. She’s 18, he’s 55.) Also, for what it’s worth, the remaining books in the series are less about Dag and Fawn’s relationship and more about trying to solve some of the problems in their world.
Somewhat surprisingly, I enjoyed Beguilement, even though it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger and it still took me about 8 years to work up the motivation to read the rest of the series. I kind of skimmed through the second book (too much drahmah) but just finished the third (pretty decent) and the fourth (surprisingly, significantly better). As a series, they’re worth reading if you like fantasy and aren’t put off by the strong romance component in the first book or two.