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Monday, August 03, 2009

The Sharing Knife tetralogy, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I have recently read the Sharing Knife tetralogy, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Bujold is one of the few authors who have won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and also a Mythopoeic Award. The Sharing Knife books haven't won any of these awards, so far as I know, perhaps because they are low-key -- there aren't any major wars, there's no evil human wizard -- but they are well done, and I enjoyed reading them. They are fantasy literature. I expect to base my next few posts (except for a Sunspots) on these books.

I plan to summarize the books in this post, because some background will be necessary to set the stage for some additional posts. The four books are Beguilement (2006), Legacy (2007), Passage (2008) and Horizon (2009), all published by Eos (HarperColllins).

The setting appears to be North America, after some unspecified disaster, several centuries previous to the time of the books. The culture is pretty standard for sword and sorcery works, in that there is no gunpowder, and no internal combustion engines, and there is magic, or at least there are abilities and a sense that we don't possess. There are two types of humans. They speak the same language, exchange goods, can produce half-breed offspring, and live in close proximity. The Lakewalkers are taller, and live longer than the farmers. (Bujold does not capitalize "farmer," but does capitalize "Lakewalker.") The Lakewalkers can practice magic, although they don't call it that, and farmers can do little or none of this. The Lakewalkers usually see themselves as noble guardians of the ungrateful farmers. Farmers usually see Lakewalkers as proud and aloof, and, to some farmers, as cannibals and grave-robbers.

The main characters are Fawn, a farmer girl, who is eighteen, newly pregnant, and running away from home at the beginning of the series, and Dag, a Lakewalker who has lost most of one arm in a battle. He is over fifty. Bujold uses each of them about equally to establish her point of view, as the tale progresses.

To summarize the four books, Dag and Fawn fall in love, and marry, to some opposition from both groups, especially the Lakewalkers. They overcome four malices, the evil spirit beings that are the bad guys of the books. Dag decides that the two groups have been too separate, and should respect each other more, and work together. He and Fawn travel across hundreds of miles, first by boat, then by wagon train, and, in the process, begin to bring Lakewalkers and farmers more closely together.

What, you may ask, is a sharing knife? First, I need to discuss the concept of ground. Ground, in these books, is some sort of non-material property or essence that is possessed by everything in existence. Humans, including unborn ones, have ground, more than all other material living things. Animals, even insects, have ground, but not as much as humans. Plants, rocks, and even human-made artifacts have ground. Ground is said not be the same as a soul. Lakewalkers can sense the ground of other entities, whether they are animate, or even if they are underwater obstacles in a river. They can do this over a range, which varies from Lakewalker to Lakewalker. Dag's range is normally a little over a mile. That is exceptional, but not unprecedented. Lakewalkers can shield their grounds from other beings able to sense it -- which means that they also are curbing their own groudsense. They can also manipulate ground. Some of them are very good at this, and use this ability to aid their work as healers. When healing, a healer loses awareness of the visible physical world, but becomes aware of the parts of the body to be healed, in intimate detail, including, for example, blood vessels. A healer can connect blood vessels, and do other major repairs, through ground manipulation.

It is possible to rip the ground out of some organism, which kills it. (A similar operation can be done on an inanimate object, but is rarely done. If it were, the essential structure of that object would be destroyed.) When this is done, the victim's ground becomes a detectable addition to the ground of the manipulator, until fully assimilated. It is dangerous to rip the ground out of any complex and intelligent organism, because it may be difficult to assimilate that much ground.

It is possible to become ground-locked. That can happen during healing, when the healer, in effect, is unable to leave the state of heightened ground-senses required for healing, and return to the real physical world. If another person with skill at manipulating ground is not available to help, a ground-locked Lakewalker will die.

Another danger to farmers and Lakewalkers is that, when a Lakewalker does groundwork on a farmer, usually to heal, the farmer may become beguiled -- strongly emotionally attached to the Lakewalker, and desiring more groundwork by the Lakewalker, whether it is needed or not.

Now, I need to consider malices. A malice is a powerful evil being that lives by taking ground from other entities, including the very rocks and plants. An area where a malice has lived is unlivable, often for many years after the malice has been killed. Material that has had its ground taken out of it is gray and loses most of its features and structure, and an area of this type is called a blight. Blights are eventually healed by natural processes -- living things gradually invade and replace the blight. Malices live and grow by not only taking ground from other things, but by taking the attributes and abilities of vertebrates, including humans. They can gain the power of speech by capturing a human. They can use animals or humans as slaves, and are also able to change animals into an almost human form, making them more valuable slaves, in a ghastly metamorphosis. (They can also produce animals which are unlike anything normal, including extra-large wolflike beings, and creatures like bats, able to fly, but much larger, and with the power of speech.) These changed, or created beings are called mud men. They die quickly when their malice is killed. Malices can control the thought and actions of their slaves. Left unchecked, malices would destroy the world for all life. Malices seem to have originated during some sort of unspecified experiment, that went badly awry, probably connected to the disaster referred to above. This is apparently meant to have been a result of our own real civilization doing something stupid. They have been seeded throughout the land, and remain dormant, until they appear at unpredictable times and places. They start as sessile -- not moving. When they have grown for a while, they become mobile, taking their slave armies with them to better sources of ground, such as human settlements. Human children and the unborn have ground which malices find to be especially valuable.

A sharing knife is a device constructed by certain Lakewalker craftspeople. (Males and females are equal in both societies, or at least any position of leadership, or any craft, seems open to both sexes.) A sharing knife is made from one of the long bones of a dead Lakewalker. When another Lakewalker is about to die, he or she is, if possible, killed by such a knife, or commits suicide with a prepared knife. The death is with the consent of the dying person. Part of their ground goes into the knife, which, thus, has some part of two different Lakewalkers, and is both prepared, from a bone, and primed, with ground. A prepared and primed knife can be used to kill a malice, and is the only way this can be done. Malices do not die natural deaths. Groups of trained Lakewalkers patrol the entire land, as often and as thoroughly as possible. Each group must have at least one sharing knife. Because of these patrols, no malice has threatened to destroy the entire land. There have been malices that grew large, with large armies. As human populations get larger, the malice threat becomes more dangerous, as a malice might be able to capture the humans from a large town, and thus obtain lots of valuable ground, and a large army, which would make getting close enough to kill the malice difficult, perhaps even impossible. When possible, Lakewalker patrollers carry two sharing knives, one primed, to kill a malice, and one prepared, to be primed with their own death. The books do not consider the question of whether a sharing knife could be made from a farmer bone, or using a farmer's ground.

Lakewalkers use other weapons, including knives, swords, and bows and arrows.

In future posts, I hope to say more about the characters, and about religious aspects of these books. Thanks for reading.

The next post, on the theme of these books, is here. A later post, on the subject of ground (unique to these books) is here. A later post, on religion in the books, is here. The final post in the series, on how I found illustrations of important Christian ideas in the books, whether Bujold intended them or not, is here.

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