Having given up their attempt at living among the Lakewalkers, Dag and Fawn are at loose ends. Dag decides to fulfill an earlier promise he made to Fawn and show her the ocean. Accordingly, the pair set off. Along the way, they’re joined by new companions, including Fawn’s brother Whit, a young man accidentally beguiled by Dag, the riverboat captain Berry, and some young Lakewalkers who have decided to run away from home. Dag’s powers continue to increase, and he begins to grow more and more worried over what he might be turning into.
The first two books were written together as one book and then backedited to split them into two. I believe that is not the case with books 3 and 4, though they were also intended to be two halves of the same story (and together to form a second half of the story started by books 1 and 2). Bujold had given them the working titles of Wide Green World 1 and 2, but for publication they were changed to Sharing Knife 3 and 4, which I think was a wise decision.
We pick up in Passage very shortly after Fawn and Dag have cut ties with Hickory Lake camp. They have headed for the farm belonging to Fawn’s family, and stop there for a little while to figure out just what they’re going to do. Upon arrival they discover that Fawn’s twin brothers, the ones who had caused the most trouble back in book 1, have departed to the frontier to look for land. Fawn’s remaining family (her parents, aunt, two brothers and sister-in-law) are much more accepting of Dag and don’t question too deeply why the pair are out on the road again.
Eventually, Fawn and Dag move on from the farm, feeling refreshed and with at least some goal in mind: to go visit the ocean. They have also picked up Fawn’s brother Whit as a travelling companion for at least part of the way. That it turns out to be more than just part of the way should surprise no one, least of all them, and on the whole they don’t seem particularly shocked. They both acknowledge that there was little to hold Whit back at the farm, since he was not due to inherit and there was no other obvious outlet for his creativity.
Dag, freed from the oversight of Lakewalker superiors, begins experimenting a good deal more with his ground-based powers. He first has a sort of idea that he will heal the rift between farmers and Lakewalkers by allowing farmers to share in some of the medical techniques used by the camps. It doesn’t take him long to realize that this idea requires a good deal more thought than he gave it before starting. We discover that “beguilement”, the title of the first book, is an actual real state which can be caused accidentally (or on purpose). To me, at least, this was not clear before, because Dag’s original explanation was filtered through Fawn’s perception and seemed to be that farmers got obsessed with Lakewalkers because they were so good in bed. It turns out to actually be a bit more serious than this, a real problem needing a solution.
The solution presents itself partway through the book, as Dag comes to understand what it is that causes the beguilement and figures out how to remove it. This is fortunate, because the ‘big bad’ of the book turns out to be not a Malice, but a renegade Lakewalker who has been beguiling people left and right to make a troop of bandits.
This Lakewalker, Crane, is someone who was mentioned in passing before — a Lakewalker who got involved with a farmer woman and ended up thrown out of camp as a result of his support of her. I’m not sure if we’re meant to feel sympathy for him or not; in spite of his involvement with the farmer woman, he doesn’t seem to have much respect for them as a people. This may be born from his anguish at her death and his alienation from society as a whole, but it’s not clear. In any case, he is definitely full of contempt for others by the time we meet him here.
The encounter with Crane is a double-edged sword for Dag. Throughout the whole book Dag has been experimenting more willingly and aggressively with his groundwork: healing people, trying to figure out beguilement, trying to figure out how to replenish his reserves more quickly. But he’s also growing more and more tense as the techniques he seems to be discovering strike him as very similar to the methods Malices use to enslave and destroy others. Dag lashes out at Crane when Fawn is threatened and uses his abilities to paralyse him from the neck down. He fears very much that he has gone too far and is turning into a monster. But to the good, he manages to use Crane’s death to acquire a new Sharing Knife, something he has been feeling a lack of for the whole course of the book. And in so acquiring, he is able to use the activity as a teaching exercise for the large group of Farmers who assisted in breaking up the bandit group.
One negative aspect to the focus on Dag’s exploration of groundwork was that I felt Fawn was relegated here to a less prominent role. She was still around, being supportive and clever, but on the whole I felt the spotlight was mostly shining on Dag. On the other hand there were only a few points in the book where they were divided up, and then only for a few hours at a time. The Malices didn’t make any appearances on camera at all, which made for a nice change.
Aside from the main thread of plot, we have several subplots introduced here, along with some new characters. Berry Clearcreek is the captain of the boat in which our protagonists head down the river. She’s a young woman about Fawn’s age, and relieves her of the responsibility of being the only girl in the party. Berry is on a mission to try and find out what happened to her father, brother and fiance, who never returned from their trip downriver the year prior. Unfortunately for her, it turns out that her relatives are dead and her fiance has joined Crane’s bandits.
The group is also joined by Remo and Barr, two young Lakewalker patrollers who have gotten in big trouble with their families and their camp. Both exemplify the problem Dag is attempting to solve: they are arrogant and look down on farmers as inferiors. Over time, they begin to realize farmers aren’t as stupid as they thought. The question of what they plan to do next is still unresolved at the end of this book.
This one was by far my favorite of the whole series. Not only did Fawn and Dag manage to spend almost the entire book together, but what battle scene there was was quite brief and didn’t involve a malice at all. As an added bonus, we got another interesting female character, and some friends for Fawn. Dag’s angsting about his powers was a little tiresome, but his concerns were legitimate enough, and didn’t get in the way of the story (ie, he didn’t go making some dumbass speeches about not using his powers and then being forced to go back on his word only after tragedy had ensued.) We started to get a few inklings of how the central background plot point might eventually be resolved, but at the end of this book it still seems an enormous and unwieldy task for our small band of heroes.