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Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Review by Ariella

Well, this is my first attempt at a book review, so I am shamelessly cribbing the format from JoJo. *g* Hey, if it ain't broke…

The book is Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. This is a first novel, and is billed as book one in an eventual trilogy (The Sevenwaters Trilogy). Here are the specifics:

The Jacket Text
“Lord Colum of Sevenwaters is blessed with six sons: Liam, a natural leader; Diarmid, with his passion for adventure; twins Cormack and Conor, each with a different calling; rebellious Finbar, grown old before his time by his gift of Sight; and the young, compassionate Padraic.

But it is Sorcha, the seventh child and only daughter, too young to have known her mother, who alone is destined to defend her family and protect her land from the Britons and the clan known as Northwoods. For her father has been bewitched, and her brothers bound by a spell that only Sorcha can lift.

To reclaim the lives of her brothers, Sorcha leaves the only safe place she has ever known and embarks on a journey filled with pain, loss and terror.

When she is kidnapped by enemy forces and taken to a foreign land, it seems there will be no way for her to break the spell that condemns all she loves. But magic knows no boundaries, and Sorcha will have to choose between the life she has always known and a love that comes only once.”

The Characters
The main character is Sorcha and the tale is told primarily through her eyes. She is almost thirteen as the story begins, the youngest of the seven children of an Irish nobleman. Sorcha is the only daughter, and has grown up somewhat wild and unladylike, raised mainly by her older brothers. The children are without their mother, who died birthing Sorcha. The other main characters are Sorcha’s six brothers: Liam the eldest, acting as surrogate father to his younger siblings, newly come to manhood and marriage; Diarmid, next in line to inherit, fun-loving and boisterous; Cormack, who excels at the arts of swordplay and battle; Conor his twin, lover of knowledge and learning; Finbar, possessed of an unwavering sense of right and wrong and the brother to whom Sorcha has always been closest; and Padraic, youngest of the boys, who has an uncanny knack with animals of all kinds. The strength of the bonds between these seven children is one of the primary themes of the story. The other major character is Hugh of Harrowfield, called "Red", a British lord who finds Sorcha in the forest and takes her under his protection. Also significant are Red's younger brother Simon, captured by Sorcha's father in a skirmish with the Britons, and his scheming uncle Richard who wants control of Red's lands and has no love of the Irish.

The World
The story is set primarily in Ireland with forays into Britain, in roughly the eighth century A.D. (I'm guessing at the century, based on the culture and events described in the book and my own knowledge of Irish history.) Christianity has been introduced but Druidism is still practiced, although less openly. Viking raids have begun, and skirmishes and raiding between the Gaels and the Britons is fairly widespread. The dominant political structure in Ireland is the tuath, with mention of a king. Magic is still an accepted part of life among the Gaels, but the predominantly Christian Britons see it as evil. Anyone at all familiar with the culture and customs of the British Isles during the medieval period will feel right at home here. Marillier has done her research very well.

The Plot
This is a retelling of the classic fairy tale "The Six Swans" in which the youngest sister must vow herself to silence and weave shirts of stinging nettles to break the enchantment that has turned her six older brothers into swans. If she utters any sound at all, or allows anyone to assist in the gathering and weaving of the nettles, or fails to clothe all six brothers at once on the one day each year they return to human form, they will be forever trapped as birds. Marillier expands on the themes of duty and sacrifice, and turns this familiar tale into a rich and engaging story. In her version, it is Sorcha's new stepmother Oonagh who casts the enchantment on the boys so that a child of her own can someday inherit Sevenwaters; she plans to simply kill Sorcha, who flees alone into the forest. We see the effect of the spell not only on young Sorcha, on whom the greatest burden falls, but also on her brothers, who must learn to live with the sacrifice she makes for them, and on Red, who is drawn to Sorcha despite her silence and odd behavior. This is not only a story about breaking an evil enchantment; it is also a story of young people coming of age and finding their places in the world, of the clash between two cultures (Gael and Briton), and of the power of love and faith.

The Grade
If this is Marillier's first effort, I can't wait to see what she is capable of as she develops in her craft. The book is written mainly in the first person (Sorcha's PoV), but Marillier handles it beautifully and it is never distracting. Her prose is elegant and lyrical, and reminded me somewhat of Patricia McKillip. The entire book has a haunting, mystical feel to it that suits the story line perfectly. Marillier's handling of the magical elements of the story is so understated and matter-of-fact that it feels real, that the necessary suspension of disbelief takes place without effort on the part of the reader. I was so absorbed by this book that I finished it in one go, staying up far later than I should have and feeling bereft when at last I turned the final page. I didn't want the story to end; I wanted to stay there with Sorcha and her brothers indefinitely. Needless to say, I'm now anxiously awaiting the next two volumes.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5 Amulets, simply because I have a bias against perfect scores. *s* Besides, what if the next volume is even better? Fans of Patricia McKillip, or of Celtic culture, myth, and folklore in general should run, not walk, to their nearest bookstore and get this immediately. One warning: there are two fairly brutal incidents of mutilation and rape. They are integral parts of the story line and are handled without resorting to graphic descriptions, but some readers may find them disturbing.

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