Yesterday the postman delivered me an early Christmas present, but unfortunately it is one that I have to pass on so after a speedy read and reread it is parcelled up again ready for me to dash to the post office and send it on when the rain eases (update: dash done).
The present I'm referring to is the ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) of Horizon. Horizon is the fourth and final book in Lois M Bujold's "Sharing Knife" series. I reviewed book 1 when it came out two and a bit years ago and I hope to write a review of the whole series at some point, but for today we'll stick with looking at Horizon, the fourth book.
The first thing to point out is that there will undoubtedly be minor changes from the version I read, since copyeditors and proofreaders are earning their pay as I write, however since I'm not going to do more than quote a couple of lines I doubt this will matter. Having said that, it is clear that this is most certainly a book that will be produced to look good on paper as its predecessors have. Harper Collins have really done a good job in the layout, typography and so on of the ARC and I have no doubt that this will be reflected in the final hardback. Although I'm firmly an eBook reader these days, I do think that some works deserve the sacrifice of some trees and the Sharing Knife tetralogy are four of them. OK so enough of the medium, what about the content? Is it any good? and must the reader also read vols 1-3 first. The quick answer is that yes the book is very good and that no reading the previous volumes is not required.
Regarding the latter, Lois manages a very nice backstory précis in the first 50 pages or so that manages to tell the new reader most of what he or she needs to know about the world and the characters and their previous adventures without any of the clunkiness that less-skilled authors tend to employ. No "As you know Dave..." or internal monologues or reminiscing or any of the other ways that the novices try. This really is the mastercraftswoman at work and it is a joy to behold as suddenly it becomes apparent that she slipped all this in while simulataneously introducing a new character or two whose questions interest those of us who know what happened. Likewise, as always, the choice of words for the pen portraits and landscapes is enough to involve us, the readers, into building our own internal image of the characters and world so that we readily identify with it.
The plot, at least the main plot, is fairly straightforward. As with the previous books there is a good deal of travelling and in many ways book four is the journey needed to get everyone (back) to where they need to be to settle down but of course various alarums and excursions are required on the way. None of the events is precisely fore-ordained but there aren't any sudden kinks and turns that cause surprise, perhaps because really this isn't a book that depends on plot-twists to keep us interested.
The fascination of this book lies in the world Lois has created and the characters that inhabit it. We don't want world-up-ending shocks because we need to understand the world as it is already and how the characters are going to act as "Agents of Change" within it. Lois is a writer who builds wonderful characters, and magnificent relationships between characters and it is the characters who drive the plot along. Since, for the most part, the characters in Horizon are strightforward, plainspeaking sorts, the plot is straightforward and plainsepaking too. We don't have Minoan labyrinths of cunning misdirection in a decadent society because the whole book is set on a sort of frontier where byzantine tangles will tend to be solved by the Alexandrian method rather than more delicate and less destructive means. Part of the fun in this book is the introdcution of Arkady who is a man of roughly the same age as Dag, the hero, and who is part reflection and part refraction of Dag. Both tend to the terse, and to the eschewing of fulsome praise, and so it is quite amusing when Dag gets to be praised in the sparing way he so often praises others:
"All in all that was well done"
From Arkady, who was quite capable of prefacing his minor critiques with You gormless, ham-handed halfwit! that was true praise.
In fact that same spare style fills the book echoing off the scenery and much else. It is, in some ways, terribly British in its understatement and very reminiscent of the Vorkosigan books where the reward for a good job is more work.
The world is very American and very libertarian. There is, roughly, 1830s-ish technology minus gunpowder but plus an understanding of hygeine by some doctors and the frontier life of the Mississippi river and its tributaries at that time is the closest echo to a historical setting for this book. We have pioneers and people seeking a new life where past (mis)deeds will not be known. More over, unlike the vast majority of fantasy novels this is a very minarchist world. There are no all powerful gods - the gods are famously absent. Neither are there evil magicians or despotic tyrants - the people who ae the survivors/descendants of the despotic magician tyrants of the past work hard to stay poor and relativel powerless. There aren't even courts and hierarchies of good rulers, rather what we have is much more democratic if not anarchistic. There is the rule of law, and it tends to be case law in a very common law tradition, but there is limited appeal beyond the judgement of one's peers. Typically if you disagree with the verdict it seems you move to somewhere elsewhere they either agree with you or don't care.
The book is less of a romance than the earlier ones - though love certainly finds its way - and is far more political. The result of the past three books has been that Dag and Fawn - the hero and heroine - need to change their world in order to be able live together and this book is about how they manage to do just that. In the process of that they (and we readers) learn just how frayed at the edges some of the core traditions and laws of their world are. It is somewhat amusing, and typically Loisian, that this decay from idealism into jobsworthness and following the letter of the law rather than the spirit shows up most in the last book of the series. Most authors would haev put this decay a couple of books earlier because reform of corrupt, decadent systems is a classic fantasy trope. Lois, on the other hand, has no grand reforming crusade just a couple changing the world through showing that alternatives exist. This is, it seems to me, very much the spirit of the world with a strong emphasis on "do not tell".
All in all it is a book that will repay rereading and cogitating. I can already see how this book (and series) would serve as a metaphor for the IETF ("We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code") and as a gateway drug book to turn soppy romantics into hardcore libertarians. No doubt more ideas will come to me with more wine and more thought. Unfortunatley I won't get to rearead for another month or so. I guess I'll have to find some other author in the meantime...