I love Juliet Marillier’s writing – the Sevenwaters series is outstanding and I also very much enjoyed The Dark Mirror – see my review here. So when I realised Himself had treated himself to this offering, I tucked in.
In exchange for help escaping her long and wrongful imprisonment, embittered magical healer Blackthorn has vowed to set aside her bid for vengeance against the man who destroyed all that she once held dear. Followed by a former prison mate, a silent hulk of a man named Grim, she travels north to Dalriada. There she’ll live on the fringe of a mysterious forest, duty bound for seven years to assist anyone who asks for her help.
I enjoyed this book, particularly that fantastic opening section. This classic fantasy romance has one major difference – the main protagonist isn’t a princess, or any other member of the royal family. She is an older woman with a terrible past, who now has been freed – on condition that she turns her back on her dreams for vengeance and always provides help if someone asks. In this medieval era fantasy, where clearly women have very limited options – she also has agency as a skilled healer, so she can rebuild her life. It’s made a lot easier by the presence of her companion, the hulking man who had occupied the cell next to hers, called Grim. He also has a dark past and is possessed of great strength and a strong work ethic – and has latched onto Blackthorn, after witnessing her temperament under the most dehumanising conditions. A word of warning – this book starts in a prison where the inmates are treated with brutality and while there is nothing graphic, there are two incidents of rape in this book.
The other protagonist is an unworldly prince, determined to marry for love in an age when dynastic and territorial concerns decide who you walk up the aisle with. He starts writing to a young woman who, it turns out, loves books and poetry as much as he does – and it’s all going swimmingly… until she takes a swim.
The romance bubbles alongside Blackthorn’s far more dramatic storyline, until it gathers momentum and near the end of the book, takes precedence as the conclusion of this story wraps up the whole narrative. Though this isn’t a ‘happily ever after’ tale – there are winners, but there are also significant losers and my sympathy does go out to the major loser. I would also add that I was a bit disturbed that a woman being sexually active was depicted as a negative attribute. It’s not a dealbreaker, and I’m conscious that faithful, chaste womanhood is part of the genre convention in classical fantasy – but this is the 21st century and I am a bit disappointed that this was used as a device to point up the female character’s unsuitability.
However, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a well-written, entertaining story and if it didn’t quite deliver the promise of that fabulous opening, it is still an engrossing, page-turning adventure.