I thought of a lot of things to call this post, before I decided to settle with something simple and relatively straightforward. Misogyny and The Sharing Knife was one of my first ideas, followed by A Feminist’s Manifesto in Bujold’s The Sharing Knife? Needless to say, none of these seemed to fit what I really wanted to talk about, primarily because they just seemed way too… loud for an essay about Bujold and her fiction. If you’ve read her, you’ll probably understand what I mean. Bujold manages to speak softly—please to do not conflate softly with weakly—and yet incredibly powerfully about the issues she raises in her novels. And if you’ve never read her, please rectify that by going to her website or your local idie and getting some of that. Thank me later.
Anyway, I was doing a re-read of The Sharing Knife duology (which I mentioned a post or two ago), brought on by a new project I’d set myself to compare the descriptions and treatments of male and female characters in a sample of epic fantasy and in which I found myself finishing both novels instead of just tracking characters. So. Here I am, wanting to write an entire post on The Sharing Knife. Most of it, though, will probably focus on the first novel, Beguilement, since that’s where the meat of the thesis, so to speak, is developed.
Also, by the by, if you’ve never read them and would someday like to, you might want to do it before you read any further, as spoilers will abound. Also, as of this writing I have only read the first two of the now four-book series—being poor and going abroad for a year really cut into my SFF reading—so that is the focus, just in case I seem to be missing things that happened books three and four.
Beguilement begins, gets its very reason for being, because of misogyny. There’s really no other way to put it. The rest of the novel just keeps building on that initial plot point. A young woman is punished for wanting to explore her own sexuality, both by the man who took advantage of her and by her society which devalues women who get pregnant from such ill-conceived liaisons. Young Fawn—too apt, Bujold—not only gets pregnant, is not only cast off by the man with whom she has sex, but is then slut-shamed by him into keeping it all a secret. She lives in a society that—as Dag, the male protagonist we’ll soon meet puts it—allows women no control over their own fertility, and is also rather puritanical in its views on sex and sexuality in general.
So Fawn runs away.
Because she’s been told all her life that she’s stupid and pretty much incapable of anything—despite what she eventually proves—she believes that it is better to hide her shame and leave her family wondering what happened to her, than try to seek help, even from her aunt who would probably understand. At first read, I was a bit put off by the fact that Fawn is so small and childlike in appearance, but read as a metaphor for all women everywhere, who are repeatedly infantilized because they are female, it is in fact very skillful writing. It is no wonder that Fawn thinks she is stupid, that she feels so alienated from her entire family, considering how she has been treated. And really it’s no wonder that she breaks the code keeping Lakewalkers and Farmers from intermarrying, because by running away from home and attempting to circumvent the course of events that should have happened—she has broken the traditional paradigm of how people like her are supposed to act.
And things happen. Fawn is almost raped. The bright side is that she at least can’t get pregnant! She’s kidnapped and her child’s life stolen by a Malice, the destructive entities in the world whom Lakewalkers pretty much exist to kill, and Dag saves her a couple different times, eventually bringing her to where his patrol is staying at a hotel in Glassforge—the town Fawn was trying to get to anyway—and she meets his patrol leader. And where Dag and Fawn finally start the physical part of their relationship, though the mental/emotional part had been going on almost since they met.
We find out that it is culture which has delayed that physical relationship—Dag and Fawn each live in a culture in which the opposite gender waits for the other to make the first move—but it would be difficult to argue that had Dag not been so culturally restrained he would have initiated a physical relationship with her earlier. The two just display such an honest desire to be together in a whole sense. In short, Bujold does not condescendingly fall to a purity standpoint in their relationship, making Dag into the “perfect gentleman” character. His comment, “how many nights would you say we have wasted here?” is more an acknowledgement of their differing cultures, and how taboos and mores can get in the way, rather than the rueful exhalation of a sex-starved male trying to “protect” a woman from his feral masculinity.
Oh yes, and the sex is great, and not shameful, even when Fawn is just learning.
My favorite character? Well, I don’t know if I have one, but if I did I’d want it to be Mari. She is Dag’s patrol leader who is much older than most of her patrol, as she has had to wait until she was finished raising her family before returning to patrolling. She not only proves that women desire and are capable of having lives outside of being a mother/wife, she also shows what it is like when women seek it out. Lakewalker culture is much more open for women than Farmer, but it still isn’t perfect. Bujold doesn’t gloss over how childbearing can affect women. Much as I love a good story about pregnant women going into battle with the men, as though their bodies really—you know—belong to them even when pregnant, the acknowledgement that women in Lakewalker society carry the burden of making the next generation is a powerful one. A matriarchal society cannot alleviate the fact that it is only women who can give birth.
Of course, Bujold simplifies the issues she deals with by leaving out race differences, and differences in gender identification. Even gender expression is pretty bland in both cultures. No one really even considers going outside the norms there. It’s refreshing that there are no mysterious “dark” races used to add exotic flair, mystery, and a scapegoat for evil. Bujold in fact interrogates the very ideas of coming to grips with a potentially horrendous birthright, such as the United States’ history as a slave-holding nation—this idea brought to you and me by a Tor.com blog post about the series having an American frontier theme—in Dag’s revealing that Lakewalkers themselves, or their ancestors, were the original source of the Malices they now devote themselves to killing.
Fawn becomes the focus of much Lakewalker disgust with Farmers generally about their ignorance of history and just how much Lakewalkers do to protect the world they live in, but she still manages to keep her identity. It’s at this point a that reader might either expect her character to devolve into a malleable vessel for Dag to remake her into a “real” Lakewalker, or to pull some Ms. Male power stunt that is supposed to win her the acceptance of the group. She does neither, and in fact relies on her upbringing and her past to bring about the outcome she desires—I mean she figures out how to save Dag, not she gets her way with the camp decision on whether she gets to stay. No matter what happens, Fawn stays true to herself.
Well, this has been my rambling on The Sharing Knife, volumes 1 and 2. I hope there are others out there with more to add, or opinions to discuss.
Oh wow, someone wrote the type of Sharing Knife meta that I’ve always wanted to see! 😀
You ARE missing the other half of the story – books 3 and 4 (Passage and Horizon) are AMAZING and you should go find them if you can.
*chinhands* This is a good thing that is good.
There are more soft but strong feminist moments – including new characters like Berry Clearcreek – and more Farmer/Lakewaler interactions and conflict – but I won’t spoil the books for you, they are an experience to have on their own.
Oh hi! I was so excited when I saw that you’d commented on this post. Which, because I was and still am horrible at tumblr, was quite a while after you did, and then I was going to respond, but I wanted to read books 3 and 4 first, and then weeks after that I realized I had no idea when I’d get around to it.
But I have finally read Passage, and I immediately wanted to read it again as soon as I finished it. The moments/characters you mentioned I definitely noticed as well, but the most exciting part to me was a male character (Dag) talking/thinking about women’s issues like they were no big deal and just a thing to take into account for getting through the week. Specifically, him being aware of and not weirded out by Fawn’s menstruation. He plans ahead for how he can make her life easier. And of course the sex, lots and lots of happy, consensual sex.
I just really loved the general theme of not judging people until you (and maybe even not then) you know them and their circumstances. This series makes me very happy and I’m happy to find out there are other people who love it too!