Beauchamp Besieged by Elaine Knighton
(Harlequin, $5.25, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29265-1
Never has a book title been more apropos than Beauchamp Besieged. The assault is not only in the literal sense, against the hero's castle, but also against the characters themselves and even more so against the reader's senses.

The story opens with our hero Raymond as a ten year-old. He is left hogtied, with his throat partially slit, after his vicious brother Alfonso's prank goes awry. The young Raymond hardens his heart, determined not only to survive but to wreak vengeance on Alfonso.

Fifteen years later, Raymond is fighting against the Welsh on the borderlands. He kills a young Welshman and is attacked by what appears to be a child. It turns out to be our heroine Ceridwen, at age fifteen. Ceridwen has no idea who she is attacking, but even after she fails, she vows to avenge the death of her beloved Owain.

Four years after that, Ceridwen is told by her father that she is to marry Raymond Beauchamp. Ceridwen is horrified at the idea of not only marrying a murderous Norman, but one of the notoriously cruel Beauchamp family. She reluctantly agrees after her father explains it is part of a plan to defeat Alfonso Beauchamp.

On her way to Raymond, Ceridwen is waylaid. Various bits of intrigue and violence happen, and she eventually ends up with Raymond. Raymond wants nothing to do with a wife, particularly since he was accused of murdering his last one and he refuses Ceridwen. Ceridwen alternately wants to go back to her family and stay with Raymond to try to fix him. Eventually, they both come around to the idea of being together only to be threatened by Alfonso's siege.

There is nothing light about this book. People are getting their throats slit, arrows through the thigh, stab wounds to the belly and flayed alive, and that's just the hero and heroine. The reader is shown the harsh, gritty reality of battle torn Wales. It isn't that it's bad, it's quite well-written, it's just unrelenting. The reader is as besieged as Beauchamp.

Raymond has more baggage than an airport. A sadistic brother abused him, he feels responsible for the death of his wife, and he's tainted by a name that is synonymous with cruelty. The poor guy even has a bum leg. Still, he skates the thin line of being over the top tortured and somehow manages to be sympathetic. He does go a bit overboard with the honor routine, at one point he escapes the cruel clutches of his brother but insists on going back because he had agreed to be a prisoner. That's not honor, that's stupidity. Thankfully, other characters point this out to him early on.

Ceridwen is headstrong and can be selfish, but has the decency to admit when she is being so. She can also be slightly annoying because while she rails against Raymond for his foolish vengeance, she fails to realize she's doing the exact same thing. Of course it's only a matter of time before she finds out who killed Owain, and it's very obvious to the reader when she will find out, just as she decides to start trusting Raymond.

Although Knighton is skilled at creating vivid and realistic description, sometimes they trip her up. For example, many paragraphs are devoted to describing just how dirty and crusty Ceridwen and her dress are, yet Raymond comments that she always smells like rosewater. Later, great care is given to describing the horrors inflicted on Raymond in Alfonso's dungeon, including the results of his being flayed. In what seems like not enough time to recover, Raymond is in a passionate clinch with Ceridwen.

Most of the conflict in this story falls into two categories, Raymond and Ceridwen's lack of trust and the outside influence of Alfonso. The lack of trust is the more believable of the two. Raymond and Ceridwen are from two different cultures, cultures that are at war with each other. They have no reason to trust the other so their hesitation to let themselves be open is realistic.

The conflict involving Alfonso is less successful. Alfonso is so outrageously evil he becomes a caricature. No reason is given for why he is so sadistic and malicious, so he becomes this one-dimensional "bad seed". Why Raymond feels any kind of honor towards him is baffling. The addition of the cowardly evil brother Everard, who of course is a fat, corrupt prior, just adds to the stereotypes.

There is very little actual romance squeezed in amongst the rough conflict. What there is, however, is surprisingly tender. When Raymond admits his fear of vulnerability to Ceridwen it is a very touching moment. Ditto for when Raymond utters endearments to Ceridwen in French. The contrast of this softness to the otherwise unrelenting drama is surprisingly satisfying.

Beauchamp Besieged is a tough book that pulls no punches. If a reader is looking for lots of romance or any hint of lightness, they will be disappointed. Readers who are willing to follow the characters through some heavy unpleasantness, will not be.

--Anne Bulin

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