This is the first book in a new fantasy series. It's an impressive piece of worldbuilding, not for its meticulous detail, but for its originality and effectiveness. We're not buried in exposition, but as the novel unfolds we get hints of a coherent history and a larger world than the lives of the characters, even though the actual story is about two characters. Bujold also invents, yet again, an original and convincing kind of magic, which she describes with enough detail to engage without explaining so much that it rings hollow. The story is of how the lives of a young peasant woman and an older, embittered man from a mysterious society of magic-using Lakewalkers come to be intertwined. It might be a touch sappy to some people, though there is some high adventure, but I found it very well written. Bujold uses the lens of an imagined culture to illuminate some universal truths about being human.
This is not as grand a world as Chalion, but it is quite original and masterfully evoked. And some people might find the romantic plot trite, but I found it beautiful. 10 out of 10.
** MASSIVE SPOILERS BELOW **
Fawn is a farm girl running away from home because she got pregnant and her lover won't marry her or acknowledge her child. As she runs, she encounters a patrol of mysterious Lakewalkers, including Dag, a man who lost his left hand, the love of his life, and the will to get close to others in a terrible battle 20 years ago against a strange evil called a malice. The mission of Lakewalkers is to continually search the world for emerging malices, which drain the life force out of their surroundings leaving gray, dead dust. Fawn is caught by a pair of bandits, one of whom is a "mud man" -- a minion of a malice, an animal shaped into more-or-less human form. The mud man is trying to take Fawn back to its master, but the human wants to stop to rape her, and Dag comes upon them in time to put an arrow into the human and rescue Fawn, but the mud man escapes. They overnight at a strangely abandoned farmstead. Dag goes out to scout, leaving Fawn, and several mud men come to the farm, capture her, and drag her back to the malice's lair just as Dag finds it. Hoping to save Fawn, with whom he's already somewhat infatuated, he goes in, and is nearly overwhelmed by the mud men, but he manages to toss his magic Sharing Knives to Fawn, who is in the clutches of the malice. Fawn pokes the malice with one knife, to no effect, and then the other, which shatters, and the malice crumbles into dust and the mud men revert to their animal minds and flee. But before the malice died, it ate the life force of her unborn child. Somehow, the first Sharing Knife, which was supposed to be tuned to Dag so that at some future time Dag would kill himself with it, has apparently absorbed the death of Fawn's child and is now "primed". This is deeply personally significant to Dag, because the knife was a gift from beyond the grave from his dead wife. The knives are made from the bone of one Lakewalker and primed with the death of another, and they kill the malice by sharing with it the knowledge of how to die. Fawn starts bleeding from a miscarriage, and they retire to the farm until she begins to recover. The farm's owners, freed when the malice died, return, and Fawn and Dag move on to the city of Glassforge, where Dag finally reconnects with his patrol. Dag's patrol leader tells him firmly that he should know better than to become romantically entangled with a "Farmer" (the Lakewalker term for all non-Lakewalkers), which probably ends up pushing them together. The two of them leave Glassforge, on a quest to show the strangely primed knife to the Makers at Dag's home camp, and to stop along the way at Fawn's home village. Before they get to Fawn's village, a thief steals Fawn's bedroll, which has the knife in it. Dag goes to get it back, and gets his one arm broken in the fight, leaving him nearly helpless (though he has a series of prosthetic attachments that allow him to do some tasks with his left arm). They return to Fawn's family, and things are pretty tense, but Dag manages to win over the adults in the family. He has more trouble with Fawn's brothers; two of them conspire with the lout who got Fawn pregnant to rough him up and run him out of town the night before their wedding, but Dag manages to escape by climbing a tree with his legs and his hook, dropping a hornets' nest on his attackers, and using his magic to direct the hornets to a more effective attack than they would have on their own. He then intimidates a confession out of the brothers. The Farmer wedding happens successfully, and with the help of Fawn's blind Aunt Nattie who has just a touch of magic herself, they manage to make the pair of woven bracelets which demonstrate a Lakewalker marriage. The book ends as the two strike out to spend their wedding night under the stars on the way to the Lakewalker encampment, happy to be married but clearly on their way to more adventures.