Our Intrepid Heroine: Fawn Bluefield, a wide-eyed ingÃ©nue of a farmer’s daughter. Cute as all hell, and if you’re reading this as an indication that the book will be in many ways a coming-of-age story for Fawn, then may we commend you on your astuteness?
Our Intrepid Hero: Dag Redwing, a Lakewalker patroller. Not young. Not even remotely an ingÃ©nue. Missing a hand. Could probably kill you by flexing his right toe, because that’s how much of a bad-ass he isâ€”not that he would, unless you really, really, really deserved it.
Lakewalker? Double you tee eff, mate? Ahh, see, in this particular world, there are two types of people: Lakewalkers and farmers. Lakewalkers don’t always walk around lakes, and farmers don’t always farm. Lakewalkers are a race of humans with groundsenseâ€”this means they can see and (to some extent) manipulate ground, a sort of aura emitted by everything in the world (with some exceptions, but more on that later). Farmers are Original Flavor human, with only the usual five senses to work with.
Dude. This sounds all fruity-ass hippie to me. C’mon. Auras? Yeah yeah yeah, we know, but for serious, it’s not even remotely New Age fruity or annoying. Bujold does a fantastic job of taking a rather tired old conceptâ€”call it the Force, call it an aura, call it ground, shit, call it Susan, if you wantâ€”and doing nifty things with it.
OK, fine. Two sorts of people, Lakewalkers and farmers. One has groundsense, which is not at all hippie dipshittery, something we’ll have to take your word on, and one doesn’t. Let us guess: the two factions don’t really understand each other, right? Right. The Lakewalkers are sworn to protect farmers, but most of them feel mild contempt for the farmers’ complete lack of groundsense. And for their part, the farmers find Lakewalker magic (as they think of it) creepy as all hell, and some of the Lakewalker rituals necessary for destroying malices are interpreted as cannibalism and necromancy.
Malices? Whuh? Malices are these mysterious immortal Things that were seeded during a darkly-hinted-at apocalypse in the distant past. Malices are, in a sense, pure hunger and pure evil; they grow by consuming all the ground in their surrounding areaâ€”and you have to understand, this goes beyond merely killing a living thing. Its very essence is sucked out. Malices will hatch at unpredictable intervals and in random places, so Lakewalkers are constantly on patrol in an effort to catch them before they become too powerful to handle, as only Lakewalkers have the ability to craft the special knives that can kill them. The act of killing a malice is also known as sharing a death, hence (drumroll) sharing knives.
OK, enough infodumpery. What happens with the story? Fawn finds herself in A Certain Delicate Condition after a liaison with the son of a rich neighbor, and runs away from home in a panic.
That sounds annoying. Yeah, again, we know it sounds bad, but trust us, once you meet Fawn’s family, the dude who impregnated Fawn and Fawn herself, you’ll understand why. Also, can we go on with the review without quite as many interjections from the peanut gallery?
Psh. Fine. Thanks. Right, so Fawn is on her way to the city of Glassforge, hoping to find a job there, when she encounters a Lakewalker patrol. She hides from them, though not very successfully, of course, what with their groundsense and all. When she continues on her journey, she’s abducted by the minions of a recently-erupted malice in the areaâ€”her Delicate Condition makes her especially attractive to ground-hungry malices. Luckily for her, Dag stumbles across the kidnapping, and successfully tracks them back to the malice’s lair, where, with significant help from Fawn, he manages to kill it. But something Very Strange happens to one of the sharing knives during the process of killing the malice, so Dag and Fawn find themselves thrown together for the nonce until they solve the mystery. And we won’t go into any more details here, because really, read the goddamn book already.
Oh, so you guys liked it? Hellz yeah we did. It is distressingly, compulsively readable. If you pick it up, be prepared to forego meals and showers. Sarah and I talk some more about it below, though we don’t recommend that you read our back-and-forth unless you’ve already read the book, because it’s all sorts of spoilerish.
Sarah: I’m curious what you thought of Beguilement? Bujold was right that it had a higher dose of romance than I expect from a SF/F novel, but since I don’t read a lot of fantasy, I am not sure how that would be received.
Evaluating solely on basis of romance, though, it’s a great adventure and drew me in immediately. What about you?
Candy: I really, really liked it, too. It was, in fact, cracktastic. I couldn’t put it down—I was actually late to work a couple of days because of that damn book.
A friend pointed out that it was yet another Bujold novel in which the hero is vastly, vastly older than the heroine. She did it in Falling Free and Cordelia’s Honor, too (though I haven’t read the latter, so I can’t say for sure). Given that that sort of arrangement tends to give me the squicks, the extent that I liked the characters and the love story is a testimony to Bujold’s excellent storytelling ability.
Sarah: One of the things I keep looking at in terms of “This book really Worked for Me, and why is that?” is exactly that – the May-December (so to speak) romance with a vastly older hero. And not only is Fawn young, but she’s LITTLE, like he first thinks she’s a child.
And he tries to resist his attraction to her as well, since he thinks its inappropriate (as do others) to say nothing of the REAL boundary, that he’s a Lakewalker and she is Not. What’s the bigger obstacle, then, age difference or significant cultural and social difference (not to mention a difference in psychic power)?
But even then, having a Larger Obstacle with which to compare the age difference is still not the simple solution to the Age Difference Squick Factor. Bujold makes that difference work FOR the protagonists, in that they have to agree to team up and support each other in just about every way since they will meet with opposition. Moreover, Fawn ends up healing parts of Dag’s own damage in return for his caring for her when she was hurt.
And gosh, the scene where she miscarried? Cry cry cry. Esp. the part about how he could see this dancing, busy light in her belly that was cold and dark after the Malice took it. *sigh* Some good writing there. That image took a long time to leave my mind.
Candy: Yes, it was a story about two people from vastly different backgrounds and life experiences, and Bujold made it work. Dag’s hesitations and acknowledgement of what a very odd couple they made definitely went a long way towards allaying my misgivings about that sort of storyline, as well as the care Bujold took to show how the two of them complemented each other, and how despite the different places they’re at in their lives, the two of them were a good fit, which helped even out the power imbalance.
See, a big part of my problem with what I tend to think of as the old-skool Harlequin-style May-December pairing is a) the lack of hesitation in the hero, and b) the unaddressed power issues. The hero is often brutal and arrogant—a punisher as well as a lover. Dag, on the other hand, is a bad-ass, but unassuming about his abilities and gentle at the core. A genuinely nice guy. That’s one of my favorite sorts of hero. He can kill you from sheer force of Awesome, but he doesn’t try to exert his power on anyone, much less the heroine.
Another aspect I enjoyed was the complexity of the familial relationships. Fawn’s interactions with her family provide excellent insights into the forces that shaped her; they’re pretty damn dysfunctional, but nobody’s villainous, and the types of conflicts that went on made me wince at how close they struck to home.
What did you think about the world-building?
Sarah: The May-December pairing can be very sexy when done well, though. If the writer is aware of the squick factor, and combats it by not indulging in the continued imbalance of power through a hero with no hesitations and confidence in his conquering manhood, it can be very spicy. Those pairings that I have enjoyed usually feature heroes who are aware of the age difference and somewhat sensitive or hesitant as a result, both in the sense of participating in a relationship perceived as inappropriate by others, and in the sense of consciously not wanting to hurt or humiliate the heroine. Dag definitely meets those criteria, as he is exceptionally powerful in a multitude of ways, but never wants to intimidate or force his way on Fawn. He is, as you say, a genuinely nice guy – and that plus the baggage plus the depth of his power make him delicious to read about.
Oh, yes, families – very realistic, and also revealing about the protagonists, and why they are who they are. Which sounds trite and very pat but it’s amazing how many authors write a poor parent as The Most Eeeeeebil Parent in the Land MWAAAHAHAHAHAAHAA and thus the poor hero or heroine is damaged and insert handwringing here.
Dag and Fawn, on the other hand, have perfectly normal dysfunction – how’s that for an oxymoron? – and while it’s sad and unfortunate to the extreme in some instances (Fawn’s especially, as you pointed out), it’s also understandable and relate-able.
As far as the world building, the relatability of the writing in terms of the world building made it work. It didn’t NEED to be set in another world, but it was and that added to the fantasy as well as the reality of the story. On one hand, every character was real, complex, and never merely a wooden stand-in for Evil, or Conflict, or Good, or Deus Ex Machina, and the depth of realism in the characters made it so much easier for me, particularly as an infrequent reader of fantasy novels, to eagerly enter the world of the novel and participate in the story.
On the other hand, the subject matter, from the Malice to the Lakewalkers to the idea of the Sharing Knives, is very much a fantasy, even though the concepts aren’t that far from the possible. Like I said, I’m not a regular reader of fantasy, but the worldbuilding in this particular case was like stepping through a door in a hedge. No matter where I started reading again, in the middle of a chapter or the start of a new one, there wasn’t ever a need for me to re-tutor myself in the world I was re-entering. Somehow, and I have to think on this in detail, Bujold manages to make the world in Beguilement both fantastical and accessible so that I never felt lost or confused re-entering the story at a mid-point(since unfortunately, being a Smart Bitch is not my full-time job, and I don’t sit around and read books cover-to-cover like I wish I could!).
However, to detail what makes for flawless worldbuilding – and certainly this is as close to flawless as I’ve seen – is a bit beyond my ability at the present. I can say that my major pet peeve (infodumping) wasn’t present in the least. Further, Bujold managed to craft a situation where a knowledgeable character paired up with a less knowledgeable character, so that as Dag informed Fawn of his life and work, the reader learned as well, but it never seemed preachy or contrived.
What about you re: worldbuilding?
Candy: I loved the worldbuilding in this one. Bujold is very good at having her characters talk like they should, i.e., without stopping every few words to explain unfamiliar terminology (one of the clumsiest but most popular methods of infodumping), and instead having the elements unfold organically. Fawn being a farmer was definitely convenient, but I also appreciated how Dag shared the information with her gradually, as part of the action, and how Fawn was a character in her own right instead of operating as a thin excuse for infodumpery (like, say, what Sharon Shinn did to one of the characters in Mystic and Rider).
Also, did you get the feeling that the world of Beguilement was a post-apocalyptic version of this world, with Lakewalkers some type of genetically-enhanced human and the Malices an experiment gone badly, badly wrong? The description of the northern parts reminded me of the Great Lakes, and the mention of alligators in the southern bits of the continent made me go “Hmmm.” I’m looking forward to finding out if I’m right or not.
What grade would you give the book? It’s an A- for me—it was very, very good, but it lacked that spark that A books have.
Sarah: Yes! The “talking like they should” part is So important. I remember reading one book, a mystery with exactly zero romance that I read long ago, where the heroine repeatedly dropped information by inserting it in to phrases that didn’t sound like anything anyone would say. For example, instead of saying, “Oh, parties? I’d rather stay home and read a book with my dog” the heroine would say something like, “Oh, I’d rather stay home and read a book by [author name here] with my dog, [insert quirky name revealing cultural heritage here].” “Talking like they should” is definitely something Bujold mastered in this book.
I definitely pondered the meaning of the “other world” described in the book, though I wasn’t sure if it was future or alternate past. The animals were all recognizable, and the farming life was definitely recognizable, but the Lakewalkers and the Malices were not at all of the current world.
As for grade, I’d say A-. It was far too difficult to put down to give it a B+, but it didn’t light my brain on fire like a A+ book would. And that’s not a shortcoming of the novel, just a function of the fact that it’s the first of a two-part series.