As a high schooler in the ’90s, in the dark ages before Goodreads, LibraryThing, and all the rest, I had a printed list of books that I wanted to read. I had created this list based on other lists, librarian recommendations, and word of mouth. Most of the books on the list were science fiction and fantasy, and were the top of the top. A Song of Ice and Fire was on the list. (I put off reading it for so long because I thought the name was cheesy. Ah, the follies of youth!) Stranger in a Strange Land was on the list. (Probably for the best that I waited to read that one.)
Oh, and Daughter of the Forest, by Juliet Marillier, was on the list. I have just gotten around to reading it now, picking it up on a morning before work where I was pressed for time and needed to grab something off my shelf that I hadn’t read before. I’m so glad I did, and retroactively proud of my teenager self for identifying this book as a to-read.
The seed of the plot of Daughter of the Forest comes from the Irish folktale The Swans, in which seven brothers are turned into swans by an evil sorceress. Unlike so many fairy tale adaptations, though, Marillier makes the tale her own, and never lets it swamp the characters or the themes. Long before her brothers are cursed, we know them well as individuals through the eyes of Sorcha, our protagonist. That Marillier could take a family of seven and make each character feel well-realized and whole–from oldest brother Liam to youngest brother Padriac, and of course, Sorcha–is incredibly impressive.
Her powers of description rendered scenes of watching seals or meeting the Fair Folk (fairies) as powerful and dreamy as hearing about Sorcha collecting plants and weaving. I especially loved the scenes of siblings’ idyllic growing up half-wild in the forest of their father’s estate, Sevenwaters. It cemented the deep bond between the children of Sevenwaters that drives so much of the rest of the novel. In today’s literary landscape, where “insta-love” and absentee parents are a thing, it was refreshing to read about believable relationships that need nurturing and time in order to grow.
Sorcha’s journey from a young, brave, impish girl into a strong, resolute, and even braver woman is illustrated for us, step by step, without ever feeling cheesy or unearned. She felt, simply, like a real person.
And all of this in a debut novel! It is incredibly impressive and I unabashedly loved it.
Do be aware that there is sexual assault in this book. While I didn’t find it sensationalized, it was shocking and sudden and very upsetting. I do think that Marillier handled it sensitively; it was treated appropriately seriously by all of the characters, and the character who was attacked didn’t just “get over it,” but had to slowly learn to trust again, as well as to believe in her self-worth and her agency. It was part of the character’s journey and as much as it was disturbing to read, Marillier was obviously not doing it to be graphic. (She could probably give George R.R. Martin some pointers…)
Finally, Daughter of the Forest reminded me, in terms of the setting and romance, of Outlander. But where I found Outlander to be overly focused on pushing the romance, to the detriment of plot, character, and common sense, Daughter of the Forest integrated the romance so that it felt like a natural progression of a relationship, rather than overt author influence or fanservice. I tend to avoid romantic books, but I enjoyed–or at least appreciated–the romance here.
I fully intend on picking up the sequel, Son of the Shadows, as part of my next summer reading haul.
Bookwanderer Rating: Four and a half out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “Real life is not quite as it is in stories. In the old tales, bad things happen, and when the tale has unfolded and come to its triumphant conclusion, it is as if the bad things had never been. Life is not as simple as that, not quite.”