After wowing many SF fans with her stellar Miles Vorkosigan series, Lois McMaster Bujold changed genres and wrote a fantasy series that took many of her fans by storm. I, for one, thought they were even better than the Miles books, though only marginally (the Miles books were so good). Now, with The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, Bujold has almost changed genres again. Yes, Beguilement is ostensibly a fantasy (and may prove even more so in the upcoming second book), but it is even more so a romance with fantasy trappings. Yet she has succeeded beyond what I could have imagined. It's not her best book by a long shot, but it has that definite Bujold style that keeps me reading page after page, winning me over all the while.
Fawn Bluefield has run away from home and wanders into trouble. First beset by bandits and then, after being rescued, by a sinister creature called a "Malice" along with the mud-men it creates, she finds that things are definitely not going her way. Her rescuer, Dag, comes for her once more, and together they prevail. But strange things happen in the rescue, circumstances that force Dag, a Lakewalker who is supposed to shun all extended contact with people not of his society, to take her with him and care for her. During the rescue, she accidentally and inexplicably "primes" one of his sharing knives, weapons with great personal meaning to a Lakewalker and something that non-Lakewalkers shouldn't be able to affect. During their journey to meet up with the patrol from which he was separated, both start to realize that something else is going on between them, something that will affect them both the rest of their lives. When societies and their mores clash, the love between two people may not matter to anybody else and must be fought for on both sides.
Fans of typical sword and sorcery fantasy may very well be bored by this book. All of the action takes place in the first hundred pages or so, when Dag and Fawn first meet. Once that part is over, the entire story is about the relationship that forms between them and the dangers to both of them if they pursue it. Certain mysteries, like the sharing knife and the magic that Dag wields, rear their heads during the story, but those appear destined to be wrapped up in the second book, leaving this one to be just about them. Many typical romance tropes are utilized, but I was still dazzled.
Bujold's characterization is first-rate throughout. I loved both Fawn and Dag, and I especially liked watching them dance around their feelings at first. Bujold is a master at the "two people who really like each other but don't want to admit it" plot, and she excels with it here. The twist is that, given their respective cultures, it's not that they don't want to admit their attraction, but that they feel they can't admit it. Bujold has created two wonderfully distinct societies that make sense, given the way magic works in this world, and having the lovers' reluctance be cultural rather than their personal fear of being rejected, or something cliched like that,. The other characters run just as deep, with only Fawn's brothers coming across as two-dimensional. One of them gets almost no characterization except to be an annoying pest; the book probably wouldn't have suffered if he had been left out. Otherwise, though, the characterization is up to Bujold's standard.
Bujold also teases the reader by only describing Lakewalker society through Dag's explanations to Fawn. Readers get intriguing snippets that make us want to learn more, but without the massive infodumps that some SF authors employ to explain the way their world works. Even during the time we spend among the Lakewalkers, when Dag takes Fawn back to his patrol, we only see things as Fawn sees them. Only occasionally do we learn more through Dag's musings than we already know through what has been revealed earlier. It seems that we will learn more next time, and it certainly whets the appetite for those who get through this book.
Of course, that does require getting through this book, and some people may not be able to. Bujold sets a leisurely pace throughout, exploring the developing relationship and dealing with Fawn's family first. Everybody knows the way Lakewalkers treat those people whom they call "Farmers" when it comes to love, and everybody is afraid (even Dag's own people) that this can only end in heartbreak. But they don't see what we see, and Bujold is able to make a believer out of this reader, at least. Because Fawn's family needs to be dealt with, there is literally no bloodshed or fighting the rest of the way. If you have to have "action" in your books, this one will not make you happy. It could almost be shelved in the Romance section of the bookstore.
However, that's no reason to avoid Beguilement. Not being a fan of the romance genre, I probably would not have read it if Bujold hadn't written it. And if I had not read it, I would have missed a wonderful book full of beautiful prose, interesting characters, and an interesting study of two interacting cultures. Bujold has lost none of her world-building abilities; instead, she has simply added to her repertoire. I anxiously await volume two, and highly recommend this one.