(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” 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.
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.)