After reading the entire Vorkosigan Saga and the three novels in the World of the Five Gods, I thought I may be turning into a Lois McMaster Bujold completionist. A few years later, I haven’t quite made it to her entire catalog, but she remains one of the most reliable hits on the shelf. And The Sharing Knife Quartet was no exception.
The Sharing Knife: Beguilement opens a four-book fantasy romance series (there is a related novella that I haven’t read, but I believe it’s decades later in the internal chronology) set in an analogue of the frontier American Midwest. It’s told from two perspectives, opening with 18 year-old Fawn, a Farmer fleeing her home to try to build a new life after a one-night stand leaves her with a baby on the way and a lover who could not be less interested. It isn’t long before she encounters Dag, a widower whose Lakewalker patrol seeks to find and eliminate malices before their magic blights the land and enslaves the people. Because it’s a romance, it’s no spoiler to say that they get on well, spending four books developing their relationship and trying to build bridges between their peoples, while fighting off an occasional malice or two.
The romance, bridge-building, and fantasy adventure are all integral parts of the series, though the balance can shift from book to book. There’s more steam (though still only middling steam, as romances go) in the first book, with later entries seeing the leads face the world as an established couple. But there’s not an entry in the series that doesn’t have its romantic elements, nor interpersonal drama, nor life-threatening magical enemies. The balance may shift, but each book has all three.
And, because it’s Bujold, each book is a really good read. Undoubtedly, this varies from reader to reader, but she’s one of those authors who makes immersion effortless, and I tore through the first two books in no time flat. The third and fourth are a bit longer and slower paced, but I still found them totally enjoyable reads.
As I see it, Bujold is at her best when writing family drama, and The Sharing Knife gives her plenty of ammunition, with non-magical Farmers carrying a deep fear and suspicion of the Native-inspired Lakewalkers, and the Lakewalkers generally returning the favor. Neither side really understands the other, and neither approves much of mixed relationships. Unlike the real world analogue, the fault in The Sharing Knife is shared fairly equally between both groups, and Dag and Fawn have quite a hill to climb just to present their relationship to their families, let alone build meaningful bridges between their peoples. And perhaps the setup here—with more suspicion and misunderstanding than well-founded antipathy—makes the moral high ground easy enough to find, but that doesn’t prevent the interpersonal drama being extremely engaging, and often funny (particularly on the Farmer side).
As for the romance, I’m certainly no veteran of that genre, but I found it compelling enough—though there is a gap of both age and magical ability that may give some readers pause. And the adventure? It always feels like a piece of the story and not the main focus, but when danger threatens, there’s no lack for tension. I’m not sure that the monsters are anything ground-breaking in fantasy, but the execution is always top-notch.
On the whole, there’s nothing in The Sharing Knife series that fans of fantasy or romance can’t get elsewhere in their respective genres. But the combination works well, everything is executed at a high level, and the family drama is consistently entertaining. It’s not an all-timer, but it’s reliable enjoyment from start to finish. I may not move heaven and earth to get a copy, but I sure had fun with it once I did.
Recommended if you like: fantasy romance, family drama, frontier settings.
Can I use it for Bingo: All four books feature Cool Weapons, and undoubtedly, Family Matters.
Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads. And I’d probably offer that same rating for all four books. Perhaps the first was my favorite, and the third my least, but the series is remarkably consistent.