I was disappointed with Lois McMaster Bujold's previous book in this series, The Sharing Knife: Legacy. While an okay read, it didn't come anywhere near what I know Bujold is capable of producing and, as much as it felt like blasphemy to say it, I found significant portions of it just plain boring. (My review is here.) Because of that I had decided to get this new book from the library rather than buy a hardcover. Then it came out and got good reviews on blogs I trust - and I remembered how much it annoys me to have Paladin of Souls in paperback tucked in among all my other Bujold hardcovers. So I weakened and bought it.
Young Fawn Bluefield and soldier-sorcerer Dag Redwing Hickory have survived magical dangers and found, in each other, love and loyalty. But even their strength and passion cannot overcome the bigotry of their own kin, and so, leaving behind all they have known, the couple sets off to find fresh solutions to the perilous split between their peoples.
But they will not journey alone. Along the way they acquire comrades, starting with Fawn's irrepressible brother Whit, whose future on the Bluefield family farm seems as hopeless as Fawn's once did. Planning to seek passage on a riverboat heading to the sea, Dag and Fawn find themselves allied with a young flatboat captain searching for her father and fiance, who mysteriously vanished on the river nearly a year earlier. They travel downstream, hoping to find word of the missing men, and inadvertently pick up more followers: a pair of novice Lakewalker patrollers running away from an honest mistake with catastrophic consequences; a shrewd backwoods hunter stranded in a wreck of boats and hopes; and a farmer boy Dag unintentionally beguiles, leaving Dag with more questions than answers about his growing magery.
As the ill-assorted crew is tested and tempered on its journey to where great rivers join, Fawn and Dag will discover surprising new abilities both Lakewalker and farmer, a growing understanding of the bonds between themselves and their kinfolk, and a new world of hazards both human and uncanny.
Blurb from http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/
I'm very glad I did. Bujold is back to form here and tells a lovely tale of a new marriage and how the partners in it complement each other as they find their way in the world. Of course, this is Dag and Fawn, so a bevy of extra complications ensue, from fitting in (or not) with Lakewalkers and farmers to defeating an evil that, this time, isn't a malice. Dag is also trying to figure out for himself how to be both a healer and a maker without any guidance or instruction.
Again it is the Lakewalkers, in their arrogant superiority, who come off worst here as people in new camps again refuse to believe in Dag's marriage to Fawn or to be willing to help them. The farmers they meet are more accomodating and even begin to gain some understanding of Lakewalker practices as Dag begins letting a lot of secret cats out of bags. But his haphazard methods seem to work and as the two young Lakewalkers with the group also begin to learn new ways the book shows that you can't change a society (or in this case, two) all at once but you can change people one at a time.
Bujold has said that, for the first two books in the series at least, she was trying to tell a story that was an equal balance of romance and fantasy. I've seen other authors try to do the same and I have to say that I am beginning to suspect that this simply isn't possible. Nothing is going to balance perfectly and when you try to bring in people who read in two different genres, aspects of the story are likely to annoy one of them - or possibly both of them. Even for someone like me - I enjoy both genres - I find that all the "mixed" books I've read still fall more to one side of the divide or the other. You still get a romance with strong fantasy elements or you get a fantasy with strong romantic elements. Trying for an equal balance really doesn't seem to work. Going for a 60-40 mix rather than a 50-50 seems to me to produce a better book.
Of course that's just my opinion and possibly not even relevant to this book - which is definitely a fantasy with romantic elements and an exploration of a new marriage and partnership. But reading this book got me thinking about the topic and that's my conclusion.
Dag's growing abilities with his groundsense are an important part of this book and he's discovering that there is a lot of information certain members of the Lakewalker community must have that the general population knows nothing about. He's making it all up as he goes along and while he's finding solutions, he's aware they may not be the most efficent or elegant ones. Of course, the questions he's asking may not have been asked before either, so whether or not a willing Lakewalker mentor could even help him is unknown. Of course, he doesn't have one of those, so the point is moot. But it becomes clear as the series progresses that one of its themes is that while some secrets are necessary, on the whole they tend to cause more harm than good.
If, like me, you were disappointed by the previous book, don't let it stop you reading this one. It is a very pleasant return to form for the author.
The Sharing Knife: Passage
Lois McMaster Bujold
The Sharing Knife, Book 3