by Lois McMaster Bujold, HarperCollins, 2009, 453 pp., $26.99.
While many aspire to the title of science fiction/fantasy god, few actually attain that level. Lois McMaster Bujold is one of them.
As always, Bujold delivers us a world that is completely realized and populated with people, not characters. Like the three prior books of The Sharing Knife series, Horizon focuses on the two factions of Bujold's world, the farmers and the Lakewalkers. These two opposing cultures are well-developed, complete societies rather than a handful of tossed-together attributes that lead to stereotypes with no depth.
The obvious care taken in creating these societies extends to the members of them as well. Bujold's novels often seem to focus on older, often disfigured characters. Her Vorkosigan Saga had Miles; the Chalion books had Cazaril. The Sharing Knife has Dag, the one-handed Lakewalker warrior-cum-healer. Dag has already lived through fifty years and countless skirmishes and all-out wars against malices, evil magic loci which devour people and can only be killed by a sharing knife, a knife carved from the femur of a Lakewalker. The reader can thus feel the weight of all Dag's history informing his decisions.
In fact, the main conflict of the story does not lie in the fight against malices; indeed, it's two thirds of the way through the novel before one ever shows up. Despite this, the book never seems slow or dragging, because the plot springs organically from the characters' actions. The true driving force is the societal conflict between Lakewalkers and farmers and Dag, who is caught in the middle. The farmers fear the Lakewalkers' magic, called "groundsense."
The Lakewalkers, in turn, find unbearable the noise of the farmers' groundsense, which the farmers themselves cannot feel or harness. Dag is trapped in the middle by his Lakewalker heritage, his farmer wife, and his own desire to use his groundsense to help people, Lakewalker and farmer alike.
The early portions, focusing on Dag's attempts to learn how to heal people better and later on his decision to return to his homeland, never feel like unnecessary lead-up to a climactic battle. The action never dominates the novel, which always maintains its emphasis on character and culture. The depth of both world and characters, even incidental ones, makes Horizon an engrossing, satisfying read and a fitting conclusion to the series.
Jae Easley is a recent graduate of the University of Alabama.