So, I am more than familiar with LMB’s two main series – The Vorkosigan Saga (Which is mostly a space opera), and her books set in the world of the Five Gods. (Which are a sort of semi-medieval fantasy.) What I’ve been slow to pick up though is her Sharing Knife series. Mostly because they are almost impossible to find in print! I’ve never stumbled on these books in a bookshop and had to go searching really hard across libraries to find a hard copy. So I have this search to thank for me briefly renewing my membership to the university’s recreation library before they booted me out again within weeks for graduating. (I now know Amazon.com.au sells e-copies)
The story starts with Fawn Bluefield, who is making her way from her home village to the town of Glassforge to look for work. She’s doing this in secret because after a brief and disappointing dalliance with a local farm boy, she’s found herself in an unfortunate way and is really trying to avoid letting her family find out. Poor girl – it’s clearly not a well thought out plan, just something she’s constructed in a fit of a panic.
The Sharing Knife is set in a sort of fantasy American Midwest, and if Fawn’s family are the setters making their way across the frontier, the Lakewalkers are more like the Native American tribes. Lakewalkers have a special ability known as ‘ground sense’, which allows them to sense, and sometimes manipulate, something akin to life-force in their surroundings. The two sets of people don’t really mingle – the setters (‘farmers’) are suspicious that the Lakewalkers will use their abilities to beguile them. They also perceive some of the Lakewalker rituals, such as the spirit infused Sharing Knives, as necromancy. So when Fawn nearly crosses paths with a Lakewalker patrol on her journey, she decides she doesn’t want to attract their attention and tries to her best to hide.
But because of a Lakewaker patrolman’s abilities, Fawn’s scooting up a tree doesn’t go unnoticed. And it’s a lucky thing for her too. Fawn, in her delicate state, manages to accidentally attract something more fearsome than a Lakewalker – a life-force sucking Malice. Thankfully, the patrolman that realised that there were more than apples up the tree – Dag – is able to track her down and help her fight it off.
And this is where my expectations were subverted – completely thrown up in the air. I thought I was going to get a Lakewalker-Farmer team up against the Malices.
Nope, what I got instead was a romance.
Now, this should not be completely unexpected from LMB – she’s been known to incorporate romance subplots into her books before. And she does it very well. Forget being tangled up in the red string, these romance plots become integral parts of her stories – just see Komarr and A Civil Campaign in the Vorkosigan Saga; or A Paladin of Souls in her Five Gods books. But the Sharing Knife is the first one of her works that I’ve read where this kind of plot is put front and centre. The Malices and midwest setting are nearly window dressing for the cross cultural romance between Fawn and Dag. Both have a lot of baggage, and it was very sweet to see them learn to trust and confide in each other. The sex, and there is quite a bit of it, is very tenderly written as well. (I can only think of one line that really made be cringe – which involved comparing someones breasts to apples.) The biggest drama the two of them have to deal with are each other’s families, which both display a realistic level of dysfunction.
This does mean that some of the really cool and interesting parts of the world building, such as the origin of the malices and nature of groundwork, have been left hanging. But since this is the first in a four part series, it’s possible that these aspects of the story will be addressed at a later date. What I’m really hoping the next few books don’t involve though is the contrived second act garbage that you often find in romantic comedies, where pointless drama is generated just to keep the couple apart. The effort gone here to show how Dag and Fawn grow close to and learn to trust each other is too great to be splintered by that kind of rot. I want to see them stay strong together and fight the good fight, dammmit!
So now I need to decide – is this a cunning pitch to try and get more fantasy readers to get into romance? Or is it the other way around?
(Just as a bit of a footnote: LMB works romantic subplots often enough into her other works that I noticed two hallmarks of hers appear here – a relationship between a man and a woman were the man is considerably older; and in an almost blink and you’ll miss it mention, a relationship consisting of one lucky woman and two men – and the men may be into each other as well)