Today's book review is The Sharing Knife: Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold.
This is the sequel, or to put it more strongly, the second half of The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, which I reviewed a while back.
At the beginning of this volume, I was slightly confused about where I was in the story, because I'd heard Lois read some of the early chapters at Capricon and those events had gotten mixed into my memory of where I was in the story. Once I figured out where I was, the story flowed well, and the world was still delightful, but the specific situation of the plot, though all too believable, was not pleasant. The place the main characters have reached at the end of the volume is an ending of sorts, and may be all that Lois has to say, but frankly I hope it's not, because I can't leave the world happy if I don't get to see further events beat some sense into the people who are being such complete (though completely human) asses. More I can't say without being spoilery.
If you enjoyed Beguilement half as much as I did, you have to read this; despite the anger and disappointment I feel about where it ends up, it's still gripping. It's just not pleasant, and that takes some of the shiny off for me. Maybe I'm just shallow. 8 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
We open the volume with Dag and Fawn finally straggling into camp. Dag has a somewhat legitimate excuse for their lateness, since he's had to cope with traveling with no arms after having his one good arm broken in the previous volume, but he dragged the trip out longer than he had to because he wanted to put off the unpleasantness with his family and the camp as long as he could. The other patrollers were relieved to see him, but his mother and brother freaked out over the abomination of marrying a farmer as badly as they could have. Dag gets a real healer to accelerate the healing of his broken arm, and he and Fawn spend a little while reasonably happy as Dag teaches Fawn some of what she needs to know about being a Lakewalker bride. Unfortunately, Dag is still hiding from his troubles, and his family has been stirring up public opinion against him. Before things can come to a head in the Camp Council, word comes in of a very nasty malice outbreak three days' ride to the west. With good instincts, a lot of luck, and personal initiative, Dag, who has been drafted as Captain of the Hickory Lake force, manages to engineer taking down the malice without losing a single patroller. (Against a malice this advanced, this is unprecedented.) The key is that he uses his ghost hand to grab the malice and steal some of its ground, distracting it from killing the patroller it was starting to eat and giving time for another to deliver the deadly sharing knife. Unfortunately, their troubles aren't over; they now return to the blighted Bonemarsh camp to deal with the 5 Bonemarsh Makers who were caught in malice magic, tied to some of the malice's developing mud men. Three of the Hickory Lake patrollers tried to use their groundsense to help and got caught in the spell as well. Dag sends word back summoning Hoharie, a powerful medicine Maker. Before she arrives, he tries killing one of the mud men, and the weakest of the Bonemarsh makers nearly dies. He does some healing magic to save that Maker, only to find that he's been caught in the trap himself. Hoharie arrives and tries to check out the mess, and she gets caught too. Then Fawn, who tried to come with Hoharie's party, and when they refused, followed them on her own, saves the day. Since the problem seems to be that some of the malice's malice-ness didn't die with the malice and has caught the now ten trapped people, and Sharing Knives are how you kill malices, she uses the knife that was primed when she killed the malice in the previous volume. Even though Dar says that despite the fact that it seems to be primed it's no good, she figures it's the best she can do, not having a "real" primed knife. She stabs Dag with it. Dag is out of touch with his body but is able to sense the ground of the knife, and takes over, releasing the ground stored in the knife (causing it to break), and fees the mortality to the malice-bit, successfully releasing himself and the rest, but in the process seriously injuring the ground of his left hand.
After resting for a few days, Dag takes charge again, and rather than going straight home, diverts through Greenspring, the farmer town where the malice emerged. The farmers are burying their dead and planning to rebuild; they don't seem to realize that the place is blighted. Nothing will grow there for decades and just being there is bad for you, but when the patrollers try to tell the farmers this the farmers think the patrollers are trying to steal their land. They manage to depart without a fight but with both sides pissed off at each other.
When they finally get back to Hickory Lake and Dag gets his ground, further damaged by visiting the blighted town, back on the road to recovery, Dar and Cumbia bring their spiteful nastiness to the Council in an unexpected form: they challenge the legitimacy of Dag and Fawn's marriage cords, claiming that Dag did the whole thing, so they aren't legitimate, and that Dag should be fined for this. The vote is three to three, with Dag's captain Fairbolt about to cast the deciding vote. Up to this point, Dag has still been lost, not seeing his way out of the situation, but he is inspired with a plan that will mean he doesn't have to keep patrolling, but he can actually help to make the world safer. He decides that he and Fawn are going to walk not just around the lake but around the world, hoping to learn how the farmer world is changing and also to teach the farmers to appreciate rather than resent the Lakewalkers. Apparently the Lakewalkers have a long-standing bugaboo about not wanting to set themselves up as lords over the farmers and that the only way they can achieve this is to stay so separate from the farmers that the farmers hate and fear them, but what Dag saw at Greenspring has made him realize that this is madness. Fairbolt responds to this challenge by abstaining, so that the mess would have to be carried over to the next council at the winter camp, except that Dag won't be there if he follows on his plan. But Dar manages to piss on the hope that this could actually be a good resolution to the mess by asking the Council to put a hold on Dag's very considerable assets of camp credit, so that they must leave as paupers rather than wealthy. The patrollers themselves take up a fairly sizable collection which they press on Dag as they leave -- though it's still less than they should have.
It's a really shitty way to treat the heroes who have managed to take out two very advanced, very dangerous malices with minimal losses in the two books. It's certainly true to real life -- people's own personal pettiness and their mindless attachment to traditional morals often cause them to ruin much of the good that people can do in life. But the seeds of a much better future, both for Dag and Fawn and for the whole world, were right there to grasp, and it's painful to see those seeds flushed down the toilet by pettiness. Maybe it's better art to leave it as it stands, but I'm hoping for another book (or more books) that show Dag's vision of new openness between Lakewalkers and farmers succeeding in making their future safer. Plus getting to see Dar and Cumbia forced to eat their own turds would be very satisfying.