Michaeline: Review of the new Bujold “Knife Children”!

(Note: no spoilers in the post, but there may be some in the comments. You’ve been warned.)

It’s been a bad few years for reading for me. First, I blamed it on my eyes, but now that I’ve had my reading glasses for a little over a year, I have come to realize it’s only partly about my eyes. Next, I blamed it on the internet – short, addictive bits of reading that reward almost instantly – and if they don’t, well, there’s another post or article to read. And hand-in-hand with the internet is the absolute drama of the past two years in the real world. Trump, Brexit, #MeToo – all that drama, all that conflict. Do I really need a real story when I’m sated with cat pictures on the one hand, and gutted by all the real world on the other?

It turns out, yes, a real story does hit the spot, and Lois McMaster Bujold published another e-novella in her Sharing Knife series on January 24, 2019.

 

"Knife Children" cover

A new book from Bujold! (Cover via Amazon.com)

“Knife Children” has that easy-going rhythm that is part and parcel of the Sharing Knife series. It touches on old Bujoldian themes such as taking responsibility, and the ever-present possibility of redemption. It also deals with the “one damn thing happens after another” aspect of life, and “go lightly over the rough ground”.

On the surface, “Knife Children” is a pleasant read about Barr, a Lakewalker who made a terrible mistake as a young man. He beguiled a Farmer girl, loved her and left her, and a couple of years later, discovered that he had a two-year-old child. The girl’s mother, Bell, has married another Farmer and lets Barr know in no uncertain terms that he’s not welcome in their lives. Barr still checks on the girl every year or so, but this time, coming from a two-year patrol of Malice-ridden northern territory, he discovers that Bell’s homestead is burned to the ground, and his 14-year-old daughter Lily has run away from home.

What follows is a good story of life: making things right, taking second chances and redemption. In my current state of mind (worried about the world), it was just right. There’s a Malice fight (off-screen), but other than that, the adventure and conflict comes from the very human lives of these people.

There aren’t any red herrings, either. Long-time Bujold readers have enjoyed how a simple bit of foreshadowing turns into a huge set-piece that resolves the story. A uterine replicator in Barrayar spurs a huge rescue effort that winds up in a royal residence in flames and the head to the pretender-to-the-throne in a shoe bag. Or, all the little coincidences that created the famous dinner party scene in A Civil Campaign, to be followed by a dramatic proposal in front of the Council of Counts. One of my biggest disappointments in a Bujold story was when the piles and piles of concrete in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen turned out to be there for thematic reasons only – I was expecting them to drive some big plot turn, but they just sat there under the Sergyaran sun. This is not a problem with the new Bujold story.

In fact, I had no problem at all with this new story. It left me feeling hopeful and happy, and believing in the power of redemption.

Then I talked to a friend about it.

She was a bit disappointed in the ease with which everything was accomplished, so I started thinking about the story. And this is one of Bujold’s great gifts – she never bludgeons you over the head with a moral. But she will hide a great moral dilemma within a story, and expect you, as the reader, to do your own bludgeoning. I am a lazy reader, and often don’t care to.

A man on horseback kisses a young lady who is leaning out her window.

It’s an old story of a stranger on a horse, riding in to romance the women. What happens next, though? (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

However, the huge thing about this story is why Barr needs redemption. For a person of my generation, you just take certain things for granted. Seduction ala “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is funny and a clever warning to young people. However, “Beguilement” isn’t just a seduction. It is the magical equivalent of lightly roofie-ing a person. In this case, Barr didn’t just court Bell and leave her, but he was attracted to her, then used his magical powers to sap her free will. She had no choice but to sleep with him.

I think in the younger generation, a lot of people would pick up on that right away. It is a horrible thing to do, and Bujold doesn’t blunt the terrible effect it had on Bell – but the story isn’t about Bell, and while it is clear that it made her life hell, the story doesn’t dwell on that aspect.

Instead, Bujold’s sympathies often lie with people who make awful mistakes, who take responsibility for their mistakes, and then find a sort of peace with being a person who has made this sort of mistake. It’s an uneasy peace with ghosts, but it’s a redemption.

I won’t spoil it, but Barr turns out to have learned how NOT to be a young lout. He doesn’t learn through hideous consequences, but rather through the patient teaching of his friends. He doesn’t ever beguile a girl for seduction again.

This whole problem is encased in a slick little shell, like a black walnut, and you can choose to reflect upon the problem as you read the story, or you can enjoy the story on another level as the easy resolution to the problem of the runaway Lily and the bio-father she never knew. Read on that level, it’s like a fairy tale, where the mysterious man comes and rescues her from her put-upon life.

We don’t see a whole lot of Lily’s thought-processes, because we’re never in her POV. But she isn’t a whiner. She’s angry, and with some justification. And, although Barr technically rescues her, she has the agency to make that rescue stick and she is the one who makes a successful happy ending for herself. He’s only an agent, not her agency.

And, in that way, Bujold gives us a whole new viewpoint on that particular fairy tale. It’s also a fairy tale for our times, if you choose to look more deeply. The fictional lines of the Farmer/Lakewalker conflict give us a laboratory for exploring race issues (although, I would read the other books in the series to get the full dimension of the lines drawn). As a stand-alone, we can look into the issue of sexual boundaries and their consequences. Barr screwed up even worse than Brett Kavanaugh as a youth, but his handling of his mistake was completely different.

It makes me feel like there is hope for the world, after all.

(Have you read “Knife Children”? I’m opening up the comments for a spoileriffic discussion, so feel free to discuss the book as you like.)

4 thoughts on “Michaeline: Review of the new Bujold “Knife Children”!

  1. This may be my favorite book review ever, Michaeline. It makes me want to go back and re-read Knife Children, right now. Thank you!

    I should own up to being the person who enjoyed the novella but was mildly disappointed with how easily things were resolved for Barr. I guess this is what happens when one brings reader expectations to a new story, especially one by a writer as subtle as Bujold. I believed that this was a novella about Barr-and-Lily. Barr was one of my favorite characters from the original books–it was fun to watch his transformation from an entitled and obnoxious youth to a thoughtful, responsible but still inventive young man.

    I’d already accepted Barr as a reformed character. I thought this story would be about his relationship with his daughter, and about overcoming prejudice and gaining acceptance for a half-blood child. I was expecting him to be challenged, and he wasn’t. I thought he’d have difficulties to overcome, and he didn’t, not really. I was looking for a Barr-and-Lily story, and now I think this wasn’t. I think it was a Barr story, and Lily was the catalyst for Barr revisiting almost every important relationship in his life and measuring the change in him. Barr and Bell, Barr and his patrol leader, Barr and his family, and, of course, Barr and his child. And Barr with the potential for an honest relationship instead of a magically coerced fumble in the woodshed. He’d put in most of the groundwork for his redemption off the page, over the years, so we measured his success by the results of the actions, rather than the actions themselves.

    At least, that’s what I’m thinking now. Ask me again, when I’ve had the chance to go back and re-read the novella. One of the things I most enjoy about Bujold’s stories is that there’s so much to discover on a second, or third, or tenth re-reading.

    • That’s so nice of you to say! I kind of wonder if it is the kind of review that appeals to people who have already read the book, though. I don’t think I’m spoiling, but the way I leave some things unsaid will probably resonate harder if people re-read the review after the book.

      And, yes, that’s the thing about Bujold stories! Always something to talk about, whether it’s the first read or the fiftieth! (I’m a big fan of her mailing list, and the people who have smart thoughts to think about the stories.)

      I think your point about Barr overcoming his problems easily was a good one (one I hadn’t thought about on my first read). I think Bujold has spent a lot of time in her career doing the worst thing to her characters. And now, she’s in retirement, so she’s got the leisure to do what pleases her. Of course, by sticking to that regimen of Character, Motivation, Plotting early in her career means that even when she doesn’t have The Planet is at Stake stakes, she still tells a rip-roaring story. But who is to say the redemption of one mid-rank patroller isn’t just as important as saving the world? I mean, to Barr, his world IS at stake when his daughter disappears from his life.

      As writers, we’ve got to pay attention to stakes early in our careers, I think. Or do we? Well, if we were all J.D. Salingers, maybe not. (Although, how did J.D. make his money? I have a feeling he must have been independently wealthy, or magazine work and later reprints in books must have paid MUCH better than it does today.) I was reading an article in the Guardian, I think it was, about Salinger.

      First, his son Matt is promising to publish his later, unpublished work (someday). https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/01/matt-salinger-jd-the-catcher-in-the-rye

      Matt also said his father didn’t want to be playing literary politics, and write for other writers. “(H)e wanted to, as he would encourage every would-be writer to do, you know, stew in your own juices.” To disconnect from what writing is “supposed to be” and to write how you (the writer) really sees the world.

      And then, as I was procrastinating about writing this post, I saw that Neil Gaiman is offering a masterclass. And there, too, the advice is to write honestly, nakedly. Which isn’t the same as realistically at all.

      Well, I don’t know. Lois has always written what she wants to write. I mean, she tried to conform, I think, but her own humor and generous spirit always shone through, from the first short stories (but especially from her first novels). She needed to make a living with her writing.

      Now, I think she’s finding it more important to have a good time. (Sure, the sales are score-counting gravy.) I think the Stakes have taken a licking, but on the other hand, the character development is as good as ever, and she’s exploring themes and issues that I rarely see tackled.

      Fascinating stuff! (And I really, really want to re-read the novella this weekend, but my womb is staging a rebellion against the Motherhood stage of my life, and my kid is taking her all-important college exams, and I’m just all-around fighting depression. I know some ukulele and another re-read would make me feel better, but . . . .)

  2. Dear Michaeline,

    I enjoyed your review of “Knife Children,” having followed the link from the Bujold list. I’ve been on the list almost since the beginning, but since I seldom post these days, you may not recognize my name. Anyway, you have some cogent things to say about the story, and about the moral issues involved.

    Best Regards,
    Nicholas

    • (-: I DO remember your name, Nicholas! Thank you so much for your kind words. One of the things I love about the list is the chance to discuss these things. I know my post Saturday would have been a lot shorter and less relevant if it hadn’t been for a little email discussion I had with Jilly. I’ve been hit by a lot of life lately, and have found it hard to keep up with the list, but I will be over there, too, discussing as much as I’m able.

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