Blood and Bone. By William Lashner. William Morrow. $24.99.
The Sharing Knife, Volume Four: Horizon. By Lois McMaster Bujold. Eos. $26.99.
Here are two well-crafted books that will immediately appeal to the well-established fan bases of their authors, but that are unlikely to bring in new readers – simply because the slickness with which they are written does not quite conceal the formulaic level of their plotting and characterization. Blood and Bone is a standalone novel from the author of the popular Victor Carl series, and it shares some of the moral ambiguities of that sequence in its story of Kyle Byrne, illegitimate son of a well-known Philadelphia lawyer. William Lashner knows this territory well: he lives near Philadelphia and has been a trial lawyer for the Justice Department. Straightforward legal cases are not for Lashner or his characters – they don’t make very good novels, in any case – and Blood and Bone is anything but straightforward. Byrne is a slacker in his mid-20s, enjoying an unpressured life while still (rather unbelievably) feeling the pain of the death of his father 12 years earlier. Obviously, in a noir novel like this, the plot complications are sure to involve Byrne’s father, and so they do: Kyle’s dad’s law partner is murdered, and Kyle (again, rather unbelievably) becomes a suspect, so he has to try to clear his name by finding the real killer. Kyle, who has never been a detective, turns out to be a pretty good one, but of course he turns up information that he would rather not know about his beloved dad. And of course the usual sleazy suspects start crawling out of the woodwork: a U.S. senator with a secret to hide, a crime boss, and more. The problem with Blood and Bone is that Kyle, unlike Victor Carl, is not an especially interesting character. And some hard-boiled scenes are (apparently unintentionally) funny, as when two stereotypical thugs attack Kyle (“the lug slammed a forearm into Kyle’s back, denting his kidneys”) and, while being dragged to an alley, Kyle tells them, “Watch out for the suit.” Furthermore, some aspects of procedural matters just don’t make sense: Philadelphia Detective Ramirez, seeking the death certificate of Kyle’s father, has never heard of Union County, New Jersey or the town of Summit – an unlikely state of affairs. There are the usual overdone coincidences (“maybe it wasn’t a coincidence,” Kyle thinks when one of them occurs – well, duh). And there is the usual overdone dialogue: “I’m going to tell you a story, Kyle. …I’m going to tell you because I’ve been wanting to tell someone for years. And I’m going to tell you because it involves your father, and I think you have the right to know.” Whether readers will have the desire to know all these seamy little details will depend entirely on how they already feel about Lashner’s style. Blood and Bone moves quickly and requires little in the way of thought or emotional involvement. It’s a good read in its way, but not at the level of Lashner’s other books. Lashner is usually a better stylist than to write this: “Didn’t I tell you to stop stirring the pot?” “The pot kept stirring me.”
It is the style that Lois McMaster Bujold brings to her lengthy sagas that especially pleases her fan base, which will surely be glad to read the conclusion of The Sharing Knife tetralogy. Bujold builds her heroic fantasies deliberately, assembling characterizations through the small actions of the people she creates as much as through their grand plans or heroic deeds. In fact, one attractive element of The Sharing Knife is the way it makes small in addition to great actions heroic. The whole premise of the series involves Dag Redwood Hickory’s rescue of Fawn Bluefield, the two falling in love, the reasons they should not do so, the consequences of their ignoring those reasons, and the manner in which their marriage and the increasing closeness it brings to both of them raises their powers. For there certainly are powers here, magical powers (as usual in modern heroic fantasy), and Horizon would be an ineffective conclusion if those powers did not need to mature and be brought to bear against an overwhelming threat. That is just what happens here – an easily anticipated ending to the four-book series, even if the specifics of what will happen and how are revealed only gradually. But it is quite clear, and was even before this final book, that Dag’s magical abilities would grow and he would find himself becoming something more than anyone expected – his uniqueness was obvious from the moment he and Fawn predictably fell in love. Fawn grows and develops, too, as the two together lead a band of friends and followers. They lead them, of course, into danger, as Dag develops a “ground shield” that may or may not protect against the evil of a “malice,” while Fawn – who is pregnant – focuses on their growing child. There are many menaces to be faced here, such as a mud-man (“malices make them up out of animals and mud by groundwork – magic”) and “a black cloud of about fifty…bat-things.” There are sacrifices and successes and failures along Dag and Fawn’s road in Horizon, but eventually – satisfyingly, if scarcely unexpectedly – all obstacles are overcome and a new future is forged. Horizon neatly wraps up The Sharing Knife, but even Bujold’s stylish presentation cannot disguise the fact that the road Dag and Fawn travel is one that, with variations, many other heroic-fantasy heroes and heroines have trod before. Bujold tells her tale well, but there is, finally, little that is new in it.