Knife Children by Lois McMaster Bujold
[content warning - spoilers and discussion of sexual assault]
I have loved everything else I have previously read by Lois McMaster Bujold. I wanted to love this book. But I just could not. The entire plot is predicated on a rape that not only goes unpunished, but only barely acknowledged as rape by the rapist or any of the other characters.
Let me go back a step or two.
I had somehow missed Lois McMaster Bujold’s entire of body of work until recently. Probably because I am not really into military science fiction and had never read any Baen books (except the bardic magic books of Mercedes Lackey).
After her Vorkosigan series was nominated for the best series Hugo award, I decided to give it a go. I found the Tor.com reread (which is excellent, I cannot recommend enough) and I embarked. I feel in love. In love with the writing style, the world building, the characters. I started slowing down because I knew that the series, although vast, was finite. Every day while reading A Civil Campaign I went into the office of my coworker who had read the entire series and told him that the book was just “goddamn delightful.”
So when I saw a novella from Bujold from a series I hadn’t read yet on NetGalley from Subterranean, one of my favorite publishers, I thought I couldn’t go wrong. But quickly when I began reading I realized my mistake.
Which is not to say the book is bad. The writing style and the world building and the characters are all excellent. Ms. Bujold is a clear master of her craft and deserves all of her accolades. But I do not like a book where the entire plot revolves around a rape and the rapist ends up with, at most, a light scolding.
Barr is our narrator and rapist. He is a Lakewalker, which is a person with some magical powers including “beguilement,” which functions a lot like a Charm Person or Animal spell.
When Barr was 18, he used his powers to beguile a woman into sex.
I will quote the passage from the book that explains this:
“He’d been eighteen, just woken to what he’d naively imagined to be his full powers as a new patroller. The same beguiling persuasion that worked on animals worked on farmers, he’d heard, and, encountering that pretty young farmer girl when his patrol had camped on her family’s land, he’d been more than tempted to try it out. Bluebell hadn’t been unwilling. He’d not mistaken those artful glances of admiration she’d cast his youthful good looks. From admiration to arousal turned out to be but a step, and a step more from there to the loft of her father’s barn. Where he’d tried his best to give her as good a time as what he now recognized as his clumsy inexperience could provide.”
Although Barr claims she wasn’t unwilling, it is clear that he used his magical powers on her to get her to agree to have sex with him. Even if she seemed interested in him before he magicked her, his beguilement removed her ability to consent. That is not sex. That is rape.
This rape results in a child, whom Barr stalks from afar until she is a teenager and her Lakewalker powers develop. She has run away from home, and Barr finds her, brings her home, and explains her parentage to her and his family.
As mentioned above, there is some light scolding from Barr’s clan, and none from his daughter, the result of the rape. As for the rape victim? She is mostly offstage and is depicted as harried and shrewish, when she might in fact still be suffering from PTSD. In the end, the daughter chooses to remain with her mother’s rapist and live with him and his family.
I do not think that Ms. Bujold likes rape or is a fan of rape. I do not know her personally, but from reading her other novels, her blog entries on Goodreads, and her occasional comments on the Tor.com Vorkosigan reread, I feel pretty safe in concluding this. She does seem to understand that rape is horrific and has serious emotional consequences for rapist, victim, and progeny, as demonstrated by her portrayal of Sgt. Bothari, Elena Bothari, and her mother. So I do not understand why she doesn’t treat beguiled sex as rape in this novella. Because she does not, I did not like this book.