August 02, 2007


The Sharing Knife, Volume Two: Legacy. By Lois McMaster Bujold. Eos. $25.95.

Ilario: The Lion’s Eye—A Story of the First History, Book One. By Mary Gentle. Eos. $14.95.

Dangerous Offspring. By Steph Swainston. Eos. $13.95.

      The vast majority of modern fantasy writing is formulaic, or at the very least bursting with borrowed elements – most often from the works of Tolkien. Yet within this genre, some writers manage to tweak their formulas in interesting ways, and – even more important – to make their writing stand out through well-modulated pacing and in-depth characterizations. None of these three books is especially unusual in plot terms, but all are well put together by top-notch stylists; and as a result, although the books are unlikely to attract people who are not already genre fans, they will be highly pleasing to fantasy aficionados – especially ones already familiar with these authors’ style.

      For more than 20 years, Lois McMaster Bujold has provided consistently high-quality fantasy stories with grand sweep and intriguing characters. The Sharing Knife, which began with Beguilement and now continues with Legacy, is very much in her particular tradition. A Romeo-and-Juliet story of sorts, it focuses on a soldier-sorcerer named Dag Redwing Hickory and a clever farm girl, Fawn Bluefield, who first beguiles and then marries him. Fawn’s family accepts the couple with some hesitation, but Dag’s people do not – even Dag’s mother and brother are opposed to the marriage – and Dag faces the possibility of exile from his clan. Set against Dag and Fawn’s personal story is the larger one of a magical attack that threatens all the people of the land – an attack that Dag must counter. Bujold interweaves the larger and smaller tales (which, of course, are really parts of the same story) with considerable skill and occasional sly humor: “Dag returned from the medicine tent reluctant to speak of the unsettling incident with the maker’s apprentice, but in any case, no one asked; instead, five persons took the chance to tell him that he needed to teach his wife to swim.” Bujold also does uncertainty well: “The dangerous moment, if that had been one, was past.” And she makes readers care about her central characters and appreciate the less-important ones around them. Legacy contains journeys, and it ends as a new one is about to begin. Bujold’s fans will eagerly anticipate the next book.

      Ilario: The Lion’s Eye is filled with journeys, too – they are an integral part of fantasy novels not only since Tolkien but also from much earlier times. This first book of an alternative-history cycle stands out for its portrayal of the title character, who is an artist of dual sex. This goes beyond ordinary hermaphroditism: at one point in the book, he marries a woman and is then forced to explain to her that he is pregnant. Unlike Lois McMaster Bujold, Mary Gentle does not play such scenes for any sort of amusement, using them to deepen readers’ concerns about characters who might otherwise seem outré. Ilario may be odd in some important ways, but is quite recognizable in others, notably in yearning for freedom and life – there are those seeking to take his. The background of this tale involves a version of the hegemony battles between Rome and Carthage; with that and with Ilario’s travels and advancing pregnancy, there is a lot going on here, setting the stage for The Stone Golem, the upcoming second book in this series.

      Dangerous Offspring is not officially part of a series, but it draws on Steph Swainston’s prior books about the Fourlands, The Year of Our War and No Present Like Time. The focus of the new book, as of the earlier ones, is an immortal named Jant. These are books in which immortality is far from an unalloyed blessing: Jant has lived for centuries, during which he has been viciously attacked by deadly insects, has been subjected to the politics of the immortals (which are every bit as convoluted and potentially destructive as those of mere mortals), and has turned for survival to a highly addictive substance called cat. In Dangerous Offspring, Jant confronts a troubling plan by San, the Emperor; at one point is nearly torn apart by a creature called the Vermiform, which seems to have elements both of worms and of Jack-and-the-beanstalk-style vines; and spends time with unusual philosophical musings: “The traits of genius often coincide with madness, but that isn’t strange, because if genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, then you tell me what madness is.” Swainston’s unusual style and ability to conjure up creatures that are peculiar even by the standards of modern fantasy produce in Dangerous Offspring a story both offbeat and well-written – a treat for fans of her earlier books.

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