Sunday, June 22, 2014

Reading Notes: The Sharing Knife

I am a latecomer to the wonder that is Lois McMaster Bujold. I only discovered her for the first time when attempting the 2013 Hugo Prize nominee list, where I read the charming science fiction action-adventure-romance, Captain Vortpatril's Alliance, with great delight. I have subsequently worked my way through the inimitable Vor back catalogue (Miles, Cordelia, Ekaterin ... how deeply do I love thee) and segued into Bujold's fantasy constructions with high anticipation.

The Chalion books did not disappoint - well, they only disappointed to the extent that there are only three of them, and there should have been five because I am Not Happy that not all the gods got a story. But anyway, bygones.

With this background in mind, I approached Bujold's other fantasy series, The Sharing Knife books, with expectations of being entranced, engaged and excited again. In this, I was destined to be ever so slightly let down. While these are undoubtedly good books - well-crafted, intelligently written, internally consistent, with a complex and rich world - and I did find them enjoyable enough to persist to the end of book 4, I also found them much less my cup of tea than either Vor or Chalion, and I doubt I'd read them twice.

I've been trying to put my finger on what it is about these books that did not resonate with me, and I've pinned it down to three things.

Firstly, the world Bujold has created in these books appears to me to be modelled on a sort of American frontier-Western mythos, with a substantial side helping of 19th century riverboat culture. Being Bujold, she twists and tweaks this basis in lots of interesting ways, and the insertion of the magery, with its particular rules, is neatly done, but the folksy ambience that remains, especially in the dialect, grated on me a bit. Droppin' final g's may be a quick shorthand for invoking down-home aesthetics, but it's also annoying, although I grant that I am hardly the ideal target audience for it, being neither USian nor a fan of the Western genre overall.

Secondly, unlike in all Bujold's other series, I didn't take to the female lead at all. Fawn Bluefield isn't Bujold's only sweet young thing heroine - although, to be fair, Chalion's Iselle isn't so much sweet as intransigent and naive, while Hallowed Hunt's Ijada is afflicted with a dark curse right out of the gate, which lends her depth. Fawn is by far the most stereotypically young-girly, though, in ways that I found irritating.

Bujold generally writes older female leads and writes them incredibly well; Fawn, this 18-year-old farmer girl caught up in a series of variously fortunate and unfortunate events, doesn't come through nearly as vividly or convincingly as, say, a Cordelia, an Ekaterin, or my own favourite, the widow Ista (of Paladin of Souls). Even the early tragic event that brings her and her husband into each other's orbit, and is meant to give her a bit of shading, I suspect, just ... doesn't, for some reason. Fawn's character shows little or no development from the start of book 1 to the finale - she is, and remains, a pragmatic, bright, cheerful, not very self reflective, somewhat resourceful but still dependent girl. I didn't relate to her, and my interest in her fate was of the mildest variety only.

Thirdly, and I think this follows on from my reservations about Fawn, I found the central relationship really blergh and even at times offputting.

Bujold usually writes relationships that challenge paradigms, and usually does it incredibly well. The romances of Cazaril and Betriz, Miles and Ekaterin, Aral and Cordelia, Ista and Illvin,  Ingrey and Ijada, Ivan and Tej, all feature age, class and background incongruity, and the ways in which these resolve is what makes these satisfying love stories rather than scluppity-schlupp (that's my technical term for most romances, btw). Now I come to think of it, she does have a penchant for pairing older men with younger women (Ekaterin and Ista being the only two roughly age-matched women I can think of in the books), but it's never skeevy or wrong, and the women can always more than hold their own.

Except here.

The romance between Dag (who I also didn't madly love as a character - enough with the self-flagellation, dude) and Fawn is clearly meant to be about "transgressive love breaking all the rulez and leading the way into a brighter tomorrow". And had Fawn been a mature farmer woman - a widow, maybe, or a craftswoman, or something - then I think this might have come off. The class and cultural differences between farmer and Lakewalker would still have existed, and been just as potent and capable of exploration.

But as it is, the dynamic between  57-year-old Dag and 18-year-old Fawn is a bit skeevy, not least because of the way that Fawn is represented as naive, innocent, and pliable. The terms of their relationship, the tone of it, veers uncomfortably close to a paternal-child bond quite often, and this is fed by the fact that across all four books, it is Dag and not Fawn who makes the running and decides the course of events. Dag takes them to his home camp; Dag decides to leave it; Dag puts them on the riverboat; Dag decides to become a healer; Dag decides when they leave the second camp; Dag joins them up with a mixed caravan; Dag even (and OK, I found this the creepiest bit) decides when and how they will have sex based on his magic-y sensing of Fawn's fertility.

This lack of basic agency that Fawn has is obscured by the fact that Dag isn't a dictatorial or abusive husband, and Fawn gets to do lots of things and figure a few things out. It becomes more apparent, though, when you ponder that all the things she turns her mind to and discovers are things that are in aid of Dag's projects, interests and imperatives. Indeed, Fawn's main role in the story is as Dag's talisman, sounding board, foil and pet - much as Bujold is at pains to try and disclaim it (and on this, I think she protests too much).

So, overall, I would say these books are let down by one thing that's purely a matter of taste (the Western aesthetic) and two things that are uncharacteristically clumsily executed in Bujold's terms - the character of Fawn and the relationship between Dag and Fawn. I did not dislike the series by any means, and the plot was complex and satisfying; but I am in no hurry to make these characters' acquaintance again.

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