Book Review: Knife Children

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Knife Children (The Sharing Knife #4.5)
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Fantasy
148 pages
Expected publication date February 29, 2020, by Subterranean Press

 

The fantasy genre normally concerns itself with grand events. The scrappy band of heroes must defeat the Evil Lord who is trying to take over the world; the anti-hero must defeat the even worse villain before said villain destroys the city; the Chosen One must destroy the MacGuffin before the Dark Lord destroys all freedom. That sort of thing. What is often left out are the small domestic matters that would naturally take up the majority of the characters’ lives. Few authors take up these domestic matters as the focus of their stories, and even fewer do it well. Throughout her long career, multiple Hugo Award-winning author Lois McMaster Bujold has often focused on domestic matters, cutting into the complicated emotions that turn seemingly simple matters into complicated and dramatic stories.

Knife Children tells the story of Barr Foxbrush, a magically gifted Lakewalker returning home after patrolling the distant wilderness of Luthalia against the destructive creatures known as malices. Just a few days’ ride from home, he decides to stop by the Mason family’s home to see how they are doing. Specifically, he is there to check in on fourteen-year-old Lily, who is Barr’s daughter thanks to a youthful indiscretion. After Barr’s departure fifteen years earlier, Lily’s mother Belle quickly married a farmer, told him that Lily was his daughter, and has held the secret in all these years. But when Lily runs away after a tragedy, Barr must find her and own up to his past mistakes before they can move on into the future.

“He prudently waited until she had some food inboard before digging out and handing across Fid’s letter. He thought she’d have been happier if he’d offered her a rattlesnake, but she did take it, and, after biting her lip, ripped it open, scattering the carefully reaffixed sealing wax. She peered at the crabbed scrawl in the growing twilight, mouth moving as she sounded out the words. When she finished, she squeezed the letter into a tight ball and threw it hard onto the fire. Barr winced as it flared up, feeling for Fid.”

 

One of Bujold’s great strengths as a writer is her ability to create fully rounded characters who have great flaws as well as great strengths, but who are willing to grow as they move through their lives. Barr and Lily are no different in Knife Children. Though he spent his youth pulling pranks and giving his elders endless headaches, Barr has matured since then, becoming a responsible man who understands his duties to his family and his people. But he still has his flaws: he doesn’t want to admit to his past relationship with Belle, a farmer woman, even though withholding the truth does more harm than good.

Lily, on the other hand, is struggling under the weight of a harsh accusation and the trials of adolescence. She’s a headstrong young woman who is suspicious of the motives of her elders, but she’s also lonely and longing for praise and friendship.

Barr and Lily’s fraught relationship drives this story forward, not action or the dangers that lurk throughout the world they inhabit. Their conflict is all this novella needs to become a compelling story.

The worldbuilding in Knife Children is subtle, and while some of it is done in conversations– Lily doesn’t understand the Lakewalker culture, so he must explain parts of it to her– the rest is done through interactions between family and community, in the characters’ opinions of each other and of other cultural groups, and even through the dialogue and the way Barr and the others describe things. The Lakewalkers and their farmer counterparts live in a rough world filled with danger. Their speech, attitudes, and preconceptions show the reader the reality of it.

Lois McMaster Bujold was recently awarded the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, an honor given to just thirty-six authors in the award’s forty-five-year history. She has written everything from sweeping space operas to small-scale domestic dramas set in fantasy worlds. What she brings to all her stories is a realistic presentation of people, with all their flaws and skills, who are doing their best to make their worlds a little bit better. With Knife Children, Bujold has given us yet another brilliant and heartfelt story.

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