Western Fantasy: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife books

A lot of the things I’ve read about Bujold’s Sharing Knife series (including Bujold herself) have talked about how the books are Romance, but what seems much more interesting to me is the way in which they are Westerns. I’ve just re-read the first two (Beguilement and Legacy) and read the third (Passage). The fourth (Horizon) will be out soon.

The books are set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world that does not resemble Diana Wynne Jones Fantasyland in any particular. Long ago there were powerful magic-using wizards and they created a dark evil and instead of defeating it broke it into a zillion pieces (malices, or blight bogles) which lurk underground ready to emerge and grow powerful. The descendants of the wizards, the Lakewalkers, live in camps and dedicate their lives to patrolling the world checking for malices. They are Rangers, but they are Rangers with something of the spirit of cowboys. The ordinary people, the farmers, are slowly settling the world again. And they’re not settling it like European peasants—or rather they are. They’re settling it exactly the way European peasants settled America. This is a fantasy America! It has emerging industry and plenty of room and opportunity, and plenty of natural and supernatural dangers. The feel and language of the books is that of the Western. There’s the sense of the wide open spaces and the rapidly expanding settlements and the more settled older areas and trade and the frontier.

Fantasy, standardly, is so much generic Western Europe with serfs touching their forelocks that Bujold’s Spanish background in the Chalion books looked unusual, and books based on feudal China or Japan seem exotic. I have often wondered why there isn’t more fantasy America, and when I’ve talked about this often all people usually suggest is Card’s Alvin Maker series. So I’m thrilled with this aspect of these books.

I’m also pleased to see they’re small scale stories—there’s a romance and a personal focus, and there’s also the interesting story of the interaction between the Lakewalkers and the farmers. It’s not a typical fantasy situation. They’re not lords or wizards. But they have magic and the farmers don’t, and they expect the farmers to support them while they keep the world safe. The Lakewalkers see the farmers as their supply system, but the farmers are busy having lives and improving their technology. The Lakewalkers have to defeat unpleasant (and fairly unusual) evil frequently, routinely. The two cultures come into focus in the marriage between the two main characters.

In Beguilement the farmer girl Fawn Bluefield is fleeing her home because she has become pregnant out of wedlock. She encounters a malice and a Lakewalker, Dag Redwing, and together they defeat the malice. Later they fall in love and against all custom (all of both sets of customs of both of their people) marry. In Legacy Dag takes Fawn home to his people where she isn’t accepted, and there’s a major malice war. At the end of the book they leave.

Passage is the best of them so far. There are no malices present, but there’s the constant lurking threat of them. Dag and Fawn take a trip on a riverboat down a river a lot like the Mississippi, and interesting things happen on the way. Having established the world and the two societies in the earlier books, Bujold is free here to do what she does best, show societies and the products of those societies in action and consequence of action. The details of the world are fascinating and fit together beautifully. I don’t think there was anything I didn’t like about this volume apart from Dag being just a little too perfect at times.

I mentioned that they’re written in the language and dialect of the Western. The words like “blight bogle,” the placenames “West Blue,” “Glassforge,” “Lumpton Market” and the way the characters speak, especially Fawn, all contribute to this. This is the world of Davy Crockett if Davy Crockett had lived in a post-apocalyptic fantasy landscape.

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