The Sharing Knife, Passage (Vol. 3) and Horizon (Vol. 4), Lois McMaster Bujold
Lois Bujold may be best known for her multi-book Vorkosigan saga, but she has also written several alternate-universe fantasy novels. There are the Chalion novels, two of which are set in a series of small kingdoms reminiscent of Spain in the 15th century, and the third in a version of the Holy Roman Empire. These books have a very interesting theology, centered in an unusual Holy Family that includes the Mother's Bastard. Interactions with the five gods drive the plots of these books, particularly the Bastard, a trickster with a wicked sense of humor.
The Sharing Knife series, on the other hand, is set in an AU North America. In that world, the land erupts from time to time in malices, entities that suck the life-force from everything around them to create themselves and armies of creatures like them. Humans who come in contact with the malices, also known as blights and bogles, end up etther as food or mind-controlled slaves. For generations the Lakewalker people have dedicated themselves to fighting malices. Lakewalkers can sense the life-force in everything, which they call ground, and this "ground-sense" enables them to detect malices. They spend their time patrolling the land for emerging malices, who can only be killed with a special sharing knife. Lakewalkers facing death can "share" that death through ritual means, binding it to the knife, their last contribution to the war on these evils.
This constant struggle is made more complicated by "farmers," non-Lakewalkers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of their settlements in search of new lands (the parallels between Native Americans and European settlers are obvious, malices aside). Farmers don't have ground-sense, which makes them vulnerable to malices. Those who have never experienced a malice directly, or seen the blight they leave behind, resent the Lakewalkers. They also tell strange stories about Lakewalker sorcery, particularly the creation of the sharing knives, which are made of human bone.
(Spoilers for all the Sharing Knife books follow.)
In the first book of this series, we meet Fawn, a young woman running away from home, pregnant by a neighboring farmer who won't marry her and unwilling to face her family. She is caught by a new malice's creatures (called mud-men), and rescued by Dag, an older Lakewalker. In the course of this, she kills the malice with his sharing knife and miscarries her child. She and Dag quickly fall into mutual lust and later into bed, despite the strong prohibitions against such liaisons in both farmer and Lakewalker societies. Eventually they return to Fawn's home, where over the objections of her family they are married ("string-bound" in Lakewalker terms). In the second book, they travel up to Dag's family encampment, where his relatives refuse to accept his farmer bride (and where we learn more about Lakewalker life).
I think Lois Bujold has created an interesting world with this series. There is something of "Little House on the Prairie" about the farmer sections, and the parallels with Native Americans in the Lakewalker sections are intriguing. The malices are fascinating villains, in a nauseating way, and Bujold manages to evoke sympathy for their creatures, particularly animals caught in their making spells. But with all due respect to one of my favorite authors, the first two books really don't work for me, in large part because of the two main characters. I like them in and of themselves, but I find their romance tiresome and not particularly credible. Fawn is eighteen, a small-town girl, very bright and adventurous, who makes friends easily. Dag is a morose fifty-five, a veteran of many years fighting malices, who lost his first wife in battle. Though we are told constantly that Lakewalkers don't look their age, we are also reminded constantly of the big gap in age between these two, and I find it a bit creepy (like Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon). I certainly get why Dag is attracted to Fawn, but I can't quite figure out what she sees in him. I have something of the same problem with the age gap between Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell in Laurie King's series, but those stories build up a relationship before the romance, and then build on their partnership, professional and romantic. With this series, the couple fall into lust hardly knowing each other, and while Fawn is still recovering from her miscarriage. In the later books, we're frequently told they are deeply in love with each other, and I have to take the author's word on that.
This was my second time reading the last two books in the series, Passage and Horizon, and I do enjoy them, because they are less focused on Dag and Fawn's relationship, more on exploring the world Bujold has created here. In the third book, Passage, they have left Dag's camp because the Lakewalkers won't accept his marriage to Fawn. Nor is his farmer marriage his only renegade idea. He is coming to see that farmers can be allies in the fight against the malices, particularly as they push new settlements into malice-ridden territories, but they must be trained, and that means sharing Lakewalker knowledge with them. And he is learning that he may have undiscovered talents as a healer, but he wants to use those talents on farmers as well as his own people. Lakewalkers use their ground-sense in healing, which can seem like more sorcery to farmers - reason enough for Lakewalkers to refuse to treat them.
Dag and Fawn decide to take a delayed wedding trip to the southern coast, in part because Fawn like Emma Woodhouse has never seen the sea. Traveling with one of Fawn's brothers, they earn their passage on a flatboat heading down a series of rivers leading to the great Gray (standing in for the Mississippi), ending up in Greymouth (not quite colorful enough to be New Orleans). On their journey, they collect around them an unlikely surrogate family - or perhaps a Lakewalker patrol - including the boat's young boss Berry, two equally young Lakewalkers in need of training, and Hod, a lost soul whom Dag heals in more than body, They meet other boat crews, and a fearsome set of river bandits. Through it all, Dag tries to bridge the gap between Lakewalker and farmer (or boater), translating each to the other and learning how to heal farmers. The fourth book, Horizon, covers their return journey north, by horseback along a great trail called the Trace, traveling with much of the company from the previous book, as well as more farmers and Lakewalkers encountered along the way.
These two stories are fun adventures, with danger in the form of bandits and malices balanced with the excitement of seeing new places and encountering new people. Dag and Fawn create an extended family, drawn to their very different personalities, despite the uneasiness that farmers feel around Lakewalkers and vice versa. This aren't my favorite among Lois Bujold's books, but I do enjoy these last two. Anyone interested in the series, though, should probably start with the first two, just for the background on Lakewalkers, farmers and malices - and may well enjoy them more than I do. Lots of other readers have.