by Lois McMaster Bujold, 361 pages
It had some strong points, but overall I thoroughly disliked it. It’s precisely the kind of wafer-think, bland, conventional storytelling linked with shoddily designed woldbuilding that gives fantasy a bad reputation. There are a lot of highly ambitious and creative people working with concepts of honour, violence, social stratification, legend. Bujold herself is a major author that has produced a lot of effective speculative fiction, but this work is vastly less compelling than anything else I’ve seen of her.
Centrally I find myself coming back to the fantasy elements. This story isn’t one where the supernatural elements are a minor aspect, they stand central to the development of the plot and disclosure of the characters. However the work invests with the fantasy components in all the worst ways, ultimately making the magical components both central and very thin. At the end it’s a stock adventrure/romance quest, with a background that's extremely meagre, a worldbuilding effort supported only to enable a specific adventure. The whole 'malices' vs Lakefollowers has an overly simplistic organization of things, with the mechanics of the sharing knife itself being too elaborate to feel lived-out, and too arbitrary to be really coherent.
Of course as is usual with Bujold the setting and even plot are secondary to explorations of the characters psychology--which is decent to a point, but I was not a fan of the romance angle this was ultimately folded into. There's some efforts to toy with conventions and make the female lead a strong, intelligent, resourceful type that grows into her strength rather than getting rescued--yet Fawn is rescued a great deal, the romance comes on far too quickly and is solidified into marriage too easily, and Dag repeatedly shows himself as the radiant knight in shining armor by beating up or threatening the mundane men that harass Fawn. It’ a very shallow narrative across the book, rarely going beyond cliches in the action, fantasy backdrop or developing relationships. Fawn's family, in particular, are purely stock elements, cardboard cutouts to enable a bit of tepid drama along the route of romance. Despite all that there are charming moments here, the dialog often feels fresh, the description is evocative, and there are moments when Fawn and Dag seem like actual people, if over-nice ones. The main development of the narrative is underwhelming, however, and particularly for the last 2/3 I read with increasing frustration. Bujold is capable of much better, and from Beguilement I have little interest in reading further in this series.
Worse than: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
Better than: The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint