Fawn Bluefield, young, unmarried, and unhappily pregnant, has left her family’s farm and headed for the “big city” in search of a less embarrassing and painful future. She runs into more trouble than expected on the road, and finds herself being chased by a malice, or blight bogle. Dag Redwing, a Lakewalker patroller in pursuit of the same malice, rescues her once, and then assists her in killing the malice. The experience unfortunately costs the life of Fawn’s fetus and causes something strange to happen to a Sharing Knife belonging to Dag. The two soon succumb to mutual attraction in spite of the sure objections of both of their peoples.
Bujold is one of the few authors I can read most anything by. I’m a big fan of her Vorkosigan series, but I also liked Chalion, and the other random short stories I’ve read. So I was pre-disposed to like this series as well. In fact, the chance of win was 99.999999%, and because of her own statements that the books were pretty closely linked and would definitely be coming out one after the other, I decided to wait until all were released before reading any of them.
In this series, Bujold decided to try something different. These first two books were written without a contract, without a deadline or any sort of external publishing force requiring her to stick to a certain subject or theme. So she was able to write what she wanted and experiment — or not experiment, as the case may have been — with themes and conflicts she found interesting. And, if one is familiar with her earlier work, the subjects she returns to here should not be especially surprising. Emotional battery, women’s health and fertility, and disability have all been explored by her in previous efforts, and they are again important in Beguilement. [Bujold herself has written a bit about her motivations in writing this series, both on her mailing list and on Baen’s Bar.]
Fawn feels very much like a younger, less informed version of Cordelia Naismith to me. She is clearly very curious and intelligent, capable of taking action and making decisions for herself, but suffers from low self-esteem brought on by constant put downs and neglect from her family. Cordelia begins Shards of Honor attempting to recover from a similar problem, hers the result of a manipulative Ex. Over the course of the book, Fawn begins to value herself more after she finds that Dag takes her seriously as a person and an adult, and, like Cordelia, she ends the book by leaving her own family/culture behind to be with the man she has fallen in love with.
Dag has some, though fewer, parallels to Aral, as a fellow world weary soldier who has risen and fallen in stature and is filled with guilt over happenings he really had little control over. He comes from a culture alien to Fawn, and more alien to the reader than the patriarchal land based society which she represents. But he doesn’t come with Aral’s sexual baggage, nor do any personal enemies make an appearance in Beguilement, though there are hints that that will not remain the case going forward.
The action of the book is fairly neatly divided into three acts. Act one has Fawn and Dag meeting, and their battle with the malice. The second act encompasses their recovery from said battle and their inevitable falling in love. The final act has them pay a visit to Fawn’s parents’ farm and end up getting married. Because this book veered sharply into the romance genre, quite a lot of attention is given to their developing relationship. Bujold has never been afraid to get graphic when the plot required it, and sex is required in a romance novel, so sex there is. But it never becomes the entire point of the book.
I found the book slow going at first, much as I had Shards of Honor. But I didn’t have to force myself to keep reading for all that long, and I was hooked long before the mid- or even quarter-point. It was the characters that hooked me, however, because I have to admit though the setting grew on me a little, I was not and still am not enamored of it.
My first issue was that it was just not that interesting. Bujold has said that she tried to base the setting on the upper midwest of the United States (Ohio, Indiana, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with writing what you know, but, personally, as a person who’s grown up with the ocean minutes away, large industrial strength rivers everywhere, and mountains within an hour, I think of that area as pretty geographically boring. All of the action in this book takes place in what seems to be a location which is a mix of cleared fields and light forests, with the occasional stream or river breaking up the monotony. People ride for days without encountering any sort of change in the landscape. But the land itself never really comes to life for me beyond being a generic boring backdrop, and I’m not sure that’s entirely to do with the fact that I consider that area devoid of geographic interest. Laura Ingalls Wilder made the great plains come alive, but that sort of thing just didn’t happen for me here.
My second issue was a choice of terminology. The Lakewalker people, who can do “magic”, are constantly talking about the “ground” of objects and creatures. This is apparently meant to represent their essence in some way, though it is not quite the same thing as a soul. I have no objections to the concept, but the choice of the word “ground” to represent this idea was just annoying. Ground is such a common word and brings such an immediate image to the brain, that I found myself constantly fighting to remember that they were not talking about ground (the earth) or ground (electricity). Surely a better and less distracting term could have been found.
Aside from these issues, I enjoyed the book. As mentioned before, Bujold doesn’t shy away from being graphic when she needs to be, so though she devoted ample time to the sex part of the romance, she counter balanced that with something other authors might have glossed over: an extended and detailed description of Fawn’s miscarriage. Also, her characters are almost never annoyingly stupid. The “misunderstanding” plot rarely makes an appearence in her books; it doesn’t show its face here. The main characters do not say one thing and mean another, and they don’t play stupid games that are boring for themselves and for the reader. This was not a frustrating book: I never once felt like smacking anyone around or groaned when they once again failed to disclose their actual problem.
The only real case of crossed signals — the brief period of time where both Dag and Fawn are waiting for the other to make the first move — brought to mind another book, one which I bring up only to illustrate how Beguilement does not go completely off the rails into romance, aka soft-core porn. That book is The Valley of Horses, by Jean M. Auel, the second book in the series begun in Clan of the Cave Bear. The protagonists of that series have a similar predicament, and the sex ends up playing out in a pretty similar fashion. Like Fawn, Ayla hasn’t really gotten a whole lot out of sex in the past, and like Dag (and like most romance heroes), Jondalar is great in the sack. But where Beguilement attempts to keep things mostly within the realm of reason (there is one bit where it started to look a little questionable; I reserve judgement to see how it plays out in the rest of the series), in the Earth’s Children series we have instead Jondalar and his amazing wonder penis that is too ginormous for any woman in the world to handle. [Random and increasingly unrelated digression: I read the first three books of this series when I was about 11 or maybe 12. I raided the first two out of my dad’s bin of books, so I’m sure he knew what the contents were, the third I found at my grandparents’. My parents never said a word. A couple of years later I was reading a collection of Dave Barry columns. When my dad saw what I was reading, he said ‘aren’t those a little racy for you?’]
Overall, this was a solid introduction to a series with a good cast of characters and a needs improvement setting. Like Shards of Honor, it was a slow grab for me — I had to read a few chapters before I built up enough momentum that I couldn’t help but continue. It’s not surprising, then, that I found more than a few parallels with Shards in the characters and a bit in the plot. Neither of these facts are bad things, and Beguilement is sufficiently unlike Shards that I never felt like it was a rehash. I am glad that I waited until all four were out before starting to read the series.