Epic Fantasy Done Right

If you’re looking for a fine and somewhat unusual epic fantasy series, may I recommend Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife? It may be a little low-key for some readers’ tastes, but in the end it packs quite a wallop.

The four volumes are titled, respectively, Beguilement, Legacy, Passage, and Horizon. The main characters are an 18-year-old farm girl — well, let’s say “young woman,” because she’s short and spunky, but definitely not a child, in spite of her name, which is Fawn — and a 55-year-old patroller named Dag. And of course they soon fall in love. I won’t spoil the details of how their romance develops, other than to say that the first unusual thing about the story is that it models a healthy loving relationship. An unlikely relationship, of course, given not only the age difference but their very different backgrounds, but Bujold has no trouble convincing the reader that this is a real love story.

It’s not just a love story, of course. The world in which they live is menaced, intermittently but in a dire way, by creatures called malices. A malice is a sort of evil psychic thing that pops up out of the ground and starts turning whatever living creatures it can find into its puppets. As a malice feeds psychically on wolves, bears, or people, it gets stronger and smarter. And malices are basically immortal. There’s only one way to kill them, and it’s insanely dangerous.

Dag and his fellow patrollers hunt the malices, and they have a magic (the sharing knives of the title) with which malices can be killed. This makes for a couple of harrowing battle scenes, but battle scenes aren’t Bujold’s primary concern. There’s only one big battle scene per book, and only three of the four involve malices. (The malice in the last book is the scariest. Hoo, boy, is it scary! No kidding.) The heart of the story is about the friction between the patrollers and the farmers. They don’t like or trust one another. The farmers think patrollers are cannibals. The patrollers hold themselves aloof, because they have a psychic power that the farmers lack, and they need that psychic power to fight the malices. They’re saving the farmers from what would be literally a fate worse than death, but the farmers don’t appreciate it or even believe the threat is real.

Dag struggles to find a way to create a rapprochement between the two cultures, because he sees that in the future they’re going to need one another. The patrollers think he’s crazy, and they want nothing to do with his farmer bride. Oh, I wasn’t going to mention that they get married. Too late now. Dag’s patroller campmates don’t even recognize that the marriage is valid, and they certainly don’t want a farmer girl in their camp.

The working out of this conflict takes 1,500 pages or so. And the story works as well as it does, holding our interest (well, holding my interest, anyway), because Bujold has the skill to give us real people. We come to know Fawn and Dag. We care about them.

The world Bujold has created is perhaps a bit too simple to be realistic. The farmers have no kings or dukes, no palaces or castles, no standing armies — no government at all, really. And no religion either. When Fawn’s brother Whit is about to marry his lady friend, they go before the town clerk. That’s as organized as a farmer town gets, and the farmers have nothing bigger or grander than small towns.

I don’t have the heart to complain about this too loudly, though. For one thing, it’s refreshing to read a fantasy story that’s not larded with thick slabs of palace intrigue. Can’t have palace intrigue when there are no palaces! There’s not even an ultimate evil to be defeated. Malices are nasty and dangerous, but the danger they pose is strictly local, not globe-spanning (though it could easily become globe-spanning, if the patrollers ever failed to find and kill a malice before it grew too powerful to be attacked).

Bujold’s writing is very concrete, detailed, and precise. She doesn’t give us a hurried, shallow, slapdash account of this almost-too-simple culture. People eat, and urinate, and get saddle sores, and occasionally vomit, and play tricks on one another, and get broken legs, and tell lies, and have miscarriages, and get bitten by mosquitoes. Dag gets along fine with only one hand, because his left hand was chomped off by a malice-driven wolf some years ago. He has a hook, which is held on with a harness, and sometimes he swaps out the hook for a clamp that can hold a bow, so that he can shoot. The details of this handicap ground the narrative as well as making the strange courtship between Dag and Fawn more poignant.

Hundreds of pages of this unlikely couple traveling through their world, facing danger now and again, but more often having to explain, over and over, to both scandalized farmers and hostile patrollers, that yes, a patroller and a farmer can be married to one another — it’s an amazing love story.

And as we might expect of a master storyteller, there are a couple of twists along the way. Only patroller magic can kill a malice; farmers are powerless against the evil things. So naturally Fawn kills a malice only 50 pages into Book 1.

I’ll let you discover the rest of the story for yourself.

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