Continuing her extended vacation from the Miles-o-verse, darling of the Hugos Lois McMaster Bujold offers another fantasy, this one the launch of a new series, The Sharing Knife. It isn't bad — I'm convinced Bujold couldn't write a lousy book for any reason short of a crippling head injury — but it's far from up to her elevated standards.
The next sentence will probably cause about half of you to groan in dismay and click to another review fast enough to cause a quantum fluctuation in your computer's processor. Beguilement is a straight-up romance novel. Now, romance isn't exactly new territory for Bujold. She's often included elements of the genre in her books; go all the way back twenty years to Shards of Honor, and what you'll find is largely the love story between Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. But in her past work, Bujold has always incorporated love stories, when she's used them at all, as part and parcel of a larger, deeper, layered narrative. Beguilement is all of that, and less. There are good fantasy concepts introduced here — original, imaginative ones — but everything, including a compelling mystery involving the titular weapon, takes a back seat to the love story. Though Bujold gives this new world a history with excellent dramatic potential for a suspenseful story at least as rewarding as her Hugo-Nebula coup Paladin of Souls, the only conflict in Beguilement is "Will they or won't they?" Since it's obvious they will, what's the hook here?
The plot pretty much unfolds as follows: Boy meets girl. Boy rescues girl from monster. Boy and girl feel powerful mutual attraction, but hesitate due to vast differences in culture and age. Third parties repeatedly warn boy that romance with girl can only end in sorrow. Boy and girl throw caution to winds, hurl selves into each other's arms. Whirlwind passion, hot sexxx, foot rubs! Awkward meeting with girl's family, whom boy must win over. You figure out the rest. Exeunt omnes.
Oh boy, did I just give away the whole book? Well, maybe I did, but then maybe I didn't. Because the most disappointing aspect of Beguilement isn't that it's a simple love story, but that in telling it, Bujold does little more than lazily follow formula. I'll admit the most exposure I've had to romance storytelling has taken the form of Hollywood romantic comedies. But is there any other genre on earth whose formula can be best described as a dull postponement of the inevitable? Are they gonna end up together at the end? Do bears...? You know....
Beguilement starts with some first-rate adventure, in which our characters are introduced in the midst of a frightening crisis and some promising ideas are established. Then it all gets so safe in its pursuit of happily-ever-afters for its starcrossed pair that it oftimes feels like Bujold was just tossing it off while getting a pedicure and taking calls from her agent. Call me a mean old man, but I kept waiting for the Lois who wrote The Curse of Chalion to turn up and throw a massive, devastating monkey wrench into the fairytale unfolding before me. But she never did. The worst conflict the hero has to resolve involves the prankish use of a wasp's nest. If only Lupe de Cazaril had had life so easy.
Okay, I've now mentioned a couple of times the book starts well, so I'll elaborate. The Y-chromosome half of this affair is Dag, a battle-hardened, one-handed Lakewalker patroller. Lakewalkers are a tribal bunch who make it their business to patrol the landscape hunting down malices, evil beings who rise from the earth itself, then draw their power from it to enslave humans and cruelly transform animals into ravenous mud-men, animal/human hybrids. Lakewalkers have the ability to access the "grounding" of living things, a sort of natural earth-magic concept that Bujold employs to good effect.
The girl is young Fawn Bluefield, who's run away from her family's farm because she's prego following an ill-advised roll in the hay with a loutish neighbor boy. Dag rescues Fawn from the clutches of a rather nasty malice. Then she saves him, when he throws her his sharing knives and she uses both — when she should have only used one — to bring the malice down.
The sharing knives are a great, fresh idea that shows Bujold can still flex her imagination with the best of them. Lakewalkers carry two sharing knives, made from human bone. One knife is "primed" with the grounding of a relative or loved one who used it to commit suicide when they became infirm, mortally wounded, or otherwise brought to the point of death. This is the knife used to kill a malice. The second knife is made from a bone of the person who primed the first knife, and waits to be primed by the Lakewalker who now carries it.
Prior to Dag's rescuing her, the malice's assault on Fawn makes her miscarry, and when she unknowingly uses both knives to kill the malice, the unprimed knife becomes primed with the grounding of her fetus, which the malice absorbed. This creates an unprecedented quandary for Dag, who explains the situation to Fawn and persuades her to return to the Lakewalker camp with him to find out exactly what this means.
That's a perfectly cool premise for a story, and I was all eager to nestle back in my chair and let it unfold before me. And if the rest of Beguilement had followed through from that inciting incident (to borrow a screenwriting term), Bujold could well have been on her way to another armful of awards nominations. But she doesn't. Any resolution to the sharing knife story has been back-burnered for book two; the rest of Beguilement is just about Dag and Fawn falling hopelessly in love, and wondering how to go about each convincing the other's people they're right for each other. Dag's fellow Lakewalkers like Fawn just fine, but no one believes a romance between a 55-year-old patroller and an 18-year-old farmer girl is anything but insane.
One major concern of those opposed to the match actually lends the book its title. Bujold splits her cultures into two easily-understood camps, the Lakewalkers and the farmers (which is the Lakewalker term for anyone who isn't one of them, whether they're really farmers or not). Lakewalkers have a reputation for seducing young, horny farmers, though it seems to happen more often between Lakewalker girls and farmer boys. This beguilement almost always leads to a tragic end for the lovelorn farmer. But, as we're experiencing this story through the eyes of Dag and Fawn, Bujold is making it unambiguously clear in every paragraph that this is truly the truest of true love. So why call the book Beguilement if there's no beguilement going on?
That Bujold is a formidable talent when she's on her game is as obvious as pointing out the sun rises in the east. It's equally obvious that Bujold has more than enough chops to have interwoven the mystery plotline concerning Dag's sharing knives — what does it mean when a Lakewalker's own knife is primed before his death, and what power might the grounding of a life that never experienced birth possess? — with the romantic plotline, and had both unfold simultaneously. You know, more than one thing going on at once, as in Chalion or Paladin. What's more, it bears mentioning that Dag and Fawn really are a likable pair of romantic heroes; I did feel a connection to them, and this is why the shallowness of Beguilement bugged me so much. These two deserved a great romantic fantasy novel in which all narrative cylinders were firing, a book in which the personal love story between the hero and heroine is set against the backdrop of a land in peril from encroaching evil forces. In other words, the sort of book Bujold is more than capable of writing, and has actually written in one iteration or another before.
But with this one, she's just gone the Lifetime Channel route. And that's a letdown I don't think many readers will be keen to share.