Thursday, November 03, 2022

Beguiled, by Cyla Panin

With her parents gone, young Ella must depend upon her skills at weaving to survive.  With great effort, she tries to produce the most beautiful fabrics in order to entice wealthy women to buy them.  She dreams of one day making enough money from a sale in order to open a shop, but for now she simply must make enough to feed herself and buy materials for her next project.  It is a hard life and despite all of her efforts Ella is slipping deeper and deeper into poverty.  When her shuttle breaks, Ella realizes that she has reached the end:  she can't afford the repairs and she can't live without a working loom.

There is one last alternative, although she shudders to consider it.  The spirit of an old washerwoman lives by the river.  Called the Bean-Nighe, she can grant great wishes but they come with terrible prices.  With misgivings, Ella goes to her for help and is surprised by the mildness of the spirit's price:  just a drop of blood sacrificed to the loom from time to time.  In exchange, Ella receives ample raw materials and begins to get noticed for her amazing and beguiling products.  But any deal with the spirits is never so simple and Ella finds that it is she herself who has been beguiled.

A rich atmospheric tale of magic, based loosely on Celtic mythology, but infused with some righteous feminism and radical egalitarianism. Ella is a very practical protagonist with a pragmatic understanding of her economic situation and great entrepreneurial spirit.  More importantly, I truly enjoyed Panin's riff on the role of fashion as literal magic.  Her overall message that is a world rules by powerful men, a woman has to flaunt whatever talents they possess may strike some readers as cynical, but it makes for a compelling character.  The other real problem that nagged at me was how naïve Ella is for thinking she can trick enough people to get what she wants.  For such a practical young woman, her hubris seems out of character.

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