Once upon a time Juliet Marillier wrote a fairy tale and it was wonderful. She didn’t revamp an old classic with a new twist. She didn’t write something like a fairy tale that twists all the tropes around. She didn’t even write a fantasy book with a fairy tale feel to it. She wrote an honest to goodness fairy tale; slightly dark, slightly magical, and completely wonderful.
It starts with a bargain. Blackthorn, who had another name in another time under different circumstances, strikes a deal with a fae; seven years of services for escape from certain death. But the service is not to the fae himself but rather to the service to a community Followed by a man called Grim, or more often Bonehead in the jail they shared, she is to take on her old role of healer and wise women in a new location far from any home she has ever known.
Or maybe it starts with a tragedy. A prince eagerly awaiting his unseen soul mate first sees her in the worst of situations; right after the drowning death of one of her handmaidens in a mysterious pond on the princes’ lands. Where ever it starts these three very different people are now tied together in this fairy game – Grim, Blackthorn and the Prince Oran.
Let’s talk Blackthorn first as it is her story. A redemption tale? Perhaps, we first meet her in jail awaiting her time. A revenge story? Certainly not, as much as she wishes otherwise. The very nature of her bargain keeps her from the vengeance she desires for unknown past crimes. Worse, it forces her to help any who seek it despite her lack of desire to do much for anyone. But she is good at what she does, earns respect quickly and becomes an valuable member of her new community. She is that rare middle aged women who never seems to show in fantasy; the young see her as a crone already but she knows she has a ways to go before she hits that label.
Now Grim. Silent giant, thought to be touched in the head. A violent past implied. Destined to be either a gentle giant or a thug…in another story. But here is just a very human character. He has anger issues but controls them, makes friends in some places and not others, follows Blackthorn like a guard dog but doesn’t hover or attempt to control.
Finally Oran. Idealist. Dreamer. But more practical than he at first seems. He cares for his subjects, rules fairly, and plans his marriage for love around the needs of the kingdom. So it is with surprise and confusion that he tries to understand his betrothed. She isn’t the sweet, intelligent girl he has been writing to. There is a cold side, an aggressive side that doesn’t make sense. Confusion becomes suspicion and eventually he turns to several women he can trust to help him figure it all out.
Recognizing the fairy tale that was being wove I started trying to out think it. All the clues were there. Look how smart I am putting them all together! Aha you think you are so clever but I have figured out the mystery at the half way point. I am enjoying this so keep on writing but…oh wow. Didn’t see that coming. Should have, those clues were there too but I sat there distracted by the more obvious ones. Well then Marillier, this round goes to you.
Nothing fancy here, just great characters and a wonderful story. The only truly evil villains are minor players (though a few others make a run at the title at times) and the fae influence seems to be an easy way to set up the story rather than anything with lasting influence. Those who can’t take some fairy tale conveniences in plot set up may be disappointed but once the pieces are in play there is very little to pick at.
Recommended with full enthusiasm. One of the best books I have read this year.