Book review

The Beguilers by Kate Thompson (2001)

This strange story is about how Rilka finds the inner strength to step aside from ordinary life to embark on a personal search. And what she achieves.

Rilka lives in a remote mountain community. Her people follow the old traditions. There is little innovation. She has reached the age where she might be expected to announce her Great Intention. That would normally be to marry a sweetheart from the same village, and carry on life in the old way. But Rilka has a wayward spirit:

I had no respect for the things that the other people were doing. I would rather have died hunting beguilers than capitulated and entered an unwanted marriage or the dusty old priesthood. After all, what's the point of being human and having choices in life if everyone just ends up behaving like cattle?

Rilka has known about beguilers all her life and has a good idea what she is taking on when she decides to go off hunting beguilers. She knows, for example, that she faces exclusion from the safety of the village. She knows that she must travel alone, for no one would dream of going with her. She knows she will be disowned by her family, but that doesn't mean it hurts any less when it happens.

But what is a beguiler?

Beguilers. No one really knows exactly what they are because no one has ever caught one. They are around during the day but you can't see them because they have the same quality as the daylight. Occasionally, if you're up on the mountain slopes, you might see a shadow pass through the air like a wafer of ice floating on water; not quite substantial enough to be sure that it's really there. But at dusk they become visible, and at night they are as bright and vivid as huge fireflies.

Well, that's what they look like. But what are they?

Some people say that they are demons drawn down from the cloud mountain to feed on human souls. Others say that they are the earth-bound spirits of wayfarers who lost their lives in the mountains and who need to lead another soul to a similar death before they can be freed from their torment. Because tormented they certainly are. The sound of their moaning, howling voices floating through the village streets in the darkness would freeze the blood in your heart. However hot the night might be, we close our shutters when we hear them coming and wrap our shawls around our ears.
We are warned never to peep out at them from the first day we can understand the words. We are told that they are beautiful, so beautiful that people become mesmerised by them and get led astray. There are endless stories about them; of people who succumbed to the lure of their haunted voices and walked out into the night, never to be seen again; or got caught in the darkness between one place and another and didn't return home. Every accident that happens on the mountain is blamed on the beguilers ...

There is just one person in the whole village who will discuss Rilka's Great Intention with her, and that is Hemma who is ninety-seven years old. She is old enough to have known the last madman who went off searching for beguilers. He may have been mad, but Hemma had a certain amount of respect for him and his search, and after his death she kept his beguiler-hunting-equipment, ready to pass on to the next one to take up the quest. She issues Rilka with a tatty old shawl which will keep her warm in the coldest places, a length of gut and a small drawstring bag full of beguilers eyes. Actually, neither Rilka nor Hemma really believe the bag contains beguilers eyes, but you won't find out what is in the bag until Rilka gets to the very end of her quest. And then you will be as surprised as she is.

And now you must set off with Rilka on her bizarre journey of discovery. I was totally spellbound by this book. I think you will love it too. Highly recommended.

What can I read next?

If you enjoy The Beguilers, you might like to look at other books by Kate Thompson. There is the very satisfying Switchers trilogy, about shape changers, set in real present day life:

  • Switchers
  • Midnight's Choice
  • Wild Blood

I think you might also like to look at this one by Jonathan Stroud:

At first, when I heard about the beguilers from Rilka, they reminded me a little of the dreadful soul-devouring spectres in Philip Pullman's trilogy:

You would most likely enjoy anything by David Almond:

The kind of closed community that Rilka lives in made me think of this book by Lois Lowry:

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