I'm not sure what it is I like most about Lois McMaster Bujold's writing: her characterization skills, her prose, the fascinating world-building and plotting? Maybe it's all of the above. One skill she definitely has, though, is adaptability. In all four books of the "Sharing Knife" series, she utilizes a different style yet still keeps everything consistent between the books. The fourth book, Horizon, fully illustrates that. Bujold adds a bit of action to the mix with some wonderful magic, menacing forces, and the gradual softening of attitudes between the two very distinct societies she’s created. It's a wonderful culmination to a series that has captivated me from beginning to end, despite a couple of rough patches in the first book.
The first year of Dag and Fawn's marriage has been tumultuous, a honeymoon journey to show the Farmer girl a world that she's never seen. She's also learned a lot about how Dag's people, the Lakewalkers, aren't truly as scary as most farmers believe. Dag is learning more and more about becoming a "Maker," someone who specializes in working with the "Ground" that inhabits all human beings. He harbors dreams of becoming a liaison between Lakewalker and Farmer, a bridge of understanding between the two peoples that will end the distrust keeping them apart. As the newlyweds make their journey from the mouth of the river they’ve explored back home, with companions Lakewalker and Farmer alike, the threat of a new kind of Malice (evil remnants of ancient magic) erupts in front of them. Old and tested ways may not be enough, and the true joining of Farmer and Lakewalker will be put to its ultimate test.
Bujold continues her masterful exploration of the Lakewalker world in Horizon. Dag becomes apprenticed to a crotchety Lakewalker maker in a camp far to the south of Dag's home. In the process, we see even more about how "ground" works and the possibilities that Dag has created with his exploration of it. Fawn makes the perfect bridge between the two peoples; Farmers instinctively distrust any Lakewalker, and she is able to counterbalance that. These two characters are the core of this series, and Bujold does a fantastic job characterizing them.
That's not to say any of the other characters are neglected. As they journey north, the couple continually accept companions who want to come along for the ride. The band becomes an eclectic mix of Lakewalker and Farmer, along with a couple of half-breeds who give Dag pause for thought regarding what he and Fawn will produce when the time comes. All of these characters are distinct and bring their own personalities, prejudices, and talents to the group. Fully three-dimensional characters, they never act other than the way they should and always contribute to the progress of the story.
For readers who feel there hasn't been enough action in the series so far, the final chapter should appease. These new forms of Malices force Dag and his brethren to come up with new ways to stop them; the finale truly fits the spirit of the series - all parties work together, the Lakewalkers need the Farmers' help, and almost everybody has had their eyes opened to a new way of thinking about the world.
In almost every Bujold book I read, I marvel at the world-building skill she demonstrates; Horizon is no exception. Yes, we've already experienced this world in the last three books, but the author always brings something new to the whole proceeding. She's written each book in a different style, though this one is more like the second than it is the other novels. Book one was a romance, the third was a road (or river) journey, and Horizon harkens back to the second book with its concentration on exploring this fantasy world. Of course, all the books have included that aspect, but it hasn't always been the main thrust.
Bujold even excels in something as clichéd as the "where did everybody end up?" epilogue, delivering it all through dialogue between two characters who haven't seen each other in a while. We find out what the survivors of the journey north are doing, along with changes in the world and perceptions of it. This kind of conversation has been done before, but Bujold has heads it toward wrapping up one loose end of which the reader may not even be aware, making this character update actually important to the story.
I must comment once again on Bujold's prose: Horizon is a beautiful book to read. She captures the speech mannerisms of both Farmer and Lakewalker perfectly, with hardly a word out of place. Her descriptions paint a vivid picture of what's going on and the world around the characters, establishing a setting that you can almost see yourself in.
There are no perfect books, but any faults in Horizon are few and far between, at least to this reader's eye. The "Sharing Knife" series may have started out on a slightly questionable note, but it ends on a truly stellar one. I’d hazard a guess that this series could easily be an introduction to fantasy for those who think they don't like that sort of thing - this is a perfect blending of genres.