I've been a big fan of Lois McMaster Bujold since I discovered her Miles Vorkosigan series, but lately she's taken a turn to the fantastic instead. Some might even say she's gone a bit too far down the road and into the romance category. Whatever your feelings are, though, her "Sharing Knife" series has polarized her fans. Now that I've read the third book in the series, Passage, I have to wonder if Bujold is just playing with various styles and genres, experimenting and offering up the results to her fans like a television chef who decides to try something different. If so, it's a damned good thing that she's so skillful at it.
Passage is essentially a "road" novel (though, in this case, I guess the road would be a "river") as Dag and Fawn make a trek downriver so that Dag can show his new bride the ocean, something this farmgirl has never seen. In the process, they pick up companions (Fawn's brother, for one), find passage on a riverboat, and share adventures with everybody. A running theme throughout the novel, one that ties everything together, is Dag's experimentation with the Lakewalker magic and his newfound abilities with it. All Lakewalkers are able to do things with the "ground" that all living beings have, but he's discovered that he's capable of even more, some of it frighteningly close to what the Malices these Lakewalkers are bound to destroy can do. As they journey down the river, Dag learns new things about his abilities while he and Fawn continue to explore their own relationship.
There really isn't much of a "plot" to this book. Rather, there are a bunch of little stories that don't really relate to each other except for the fact that they may provide even more companions for Dag, Fawn, and the riverboat crew. The theme of Dag's exploration of his powers is really the only thing that ties this all together. Otherwise, I could see this book as a series of television episodes, linked together by the characters involved but none having much to do with the others.
Once I got used to the idea, though, I found that the book flowed very smoothly, and I enjoyed each individual piece as well as how they affected our heroes. One other plotline runs through the novel, which I'm sure will be dealt with in the final book: Dag's determination to bring the "Farmers" and "Lakewalkers" together in some form of understanding. He continues to make strides in this desire every time he heals one of the other Farmers on the river, most importantly as he explains in great detail some of the Lakewalker traditions that they've habitually kept hidden from the Farmers. There's every indication that he makes an impression on the people around him, but the jury is still out on whether this will bring about a societal shift. We see no indication of how the Lakewalkers themselves will react to this (though we do see the first horrified, then slowly grudging feelings of the two Lakewalkers who end up joining the crew).
Bujold's characterization skills are masterful. Every character in this novel, even if a bit player, is at least somewhat interesting, and she does a wonderful job with the steadily increasing number of crewmembers and friends that Dag and Fawn accumulate. Berry, the riverboat captain whom Fawn befriends and who takes the couple onto her boat, on a quest to find her missing father and betrothed, is alternately witty and tough, depending on the situation. Fawn's brother Whit really comes into his own, annoying at first but slowly becoming the man he desperately wants to be.
For those fans who were put off by the "romance" trappings of the first novel, and even a little bit in the second novel: rest assured that they aren't here now. Passage doesn't even have any sex scenes, instead fading to black or just mentioning it cursorily, no worse than any other fantasy or science fiction book with a romance in it. They are still exploring each other, learning things that were unknown before, and Fawn is still trying to understand how Lakewalkers work. Others who found their relationship cloying in the previous books may have the same problem here, but I doubt it. Fawn's wide-eyed innocence has been tempered by her experiences, and their relationship seems a lot more normal this time around.
In exploring the river and Dag's magic, Bujold shows us even more of this world she has created, giving us more detail on how "ground" works and is manipulated by the Lakewalkers. There isn't an overarching villain in the book, but the main one we get toward the end of the novel shows us even more how Lakewalkers work, and we see firsthand one of their most important rituals. While we don't get as much of the Farmers, we do discover even more about how they interact with the Lakewalkers and their prejudices born of ignorance.
Overall, I found Passage to be a hard book to put down, especially near the end. The final 100 pages are especially gripping, but Bujold's characterization carries through the first part of the book. The mini-stories would be much less compelling without interesting characters to keep you going. Don't worry about there not being much of a "plot" in the book - there's definitely enough that Bujold's strong writing will get you through. Just sit back and enjoy the ride down the river.