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Daughter of the Forest
Juliet Marillier
Tor Books, 538 pages

Daughter of the Forest
Juliet Marillier
Juliet Marillier was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, and puts her lifelong passion for Celtic folklore and music down to her Scottish and Irish immigrant ancestry. She now lives on the outskirts of Perth, Western Australia, and divides her time between working for a large government agency and writing fantasy fiction. Daughter of the Forest is her first novel, and has been nominated for Australia's Aurealis Award.

Juliet Marillier Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Interview with Juliet Marillier

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Growing up, I adored Celtic-themed fantasy. I read every bit of Arthuriana I could get my hands on, and devoured authors like Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, who call upon Celtic folklore in their modern-day stories. I'm sure it's the memory of those wonderful reading experiences that compels me, today, to continue reading within this sub-genre, though more often than not I'm sadly disappointed. Celtic fantasy seems to have more than its fair share of dreck, and it's rare that I stumble across a writer who has anything new to say, or can say it without lapsing into cliché. Sometimes, though, I'm pleasantly surprised -- by Mark Chadbourn, for instance, whose terrific World's End I reviewed here a few months ago; and now by debut author Juliet Marillier, whose luminous imagination, gift for characterization, and unpretentious storytelling breathe new life into a tired form.

Daughter of the Forest is based on the fairy tale of the brothers transformed into wild birds, and the sister who must sacrifice herself to save them (there are many versions of this tale; Hans Christian Andersen's is probably the most familiar, but Marillier seems to rely more on the Grimms' version, which differs from Andersen's in a number of respects). Sorcha and her six brothers are the children of Colum, Lord of Sevenwaters, an estate hidden deep within the forests of Ireland. Sorcha grows up half-wild, wise in the ways of the forest and its magical guardians, but almost completely ignorant of the outside world. Colum and his men must go out into that world, however, in order to fight the battle against the British who have stolen Ireland's sacred druidic sites; inevitably, they bring its influence back with them -- first in the form of a young British captive, whom Sorcha and one of her brothers try to rescue, and then in the form of a stepmother, the lady Oonagh, whose evil magic is hidden from Colum, but is immediately apparent to his children.

Attempting to summon the Lady of the Forest to help them, Sorcha and her brothers instead call up Oonagh herself, who works the spell to turn the brothers into swans. Sorcha, escaping, finds the Lady of the Forest after all. It's too late to save her brothers, the Lady tells her, but she can rescue them, if she undertakes a terrible task: she must weave six shirts out of starwort (a plant even nastier than Andersen's nettles), and throw them over her brothers' heads all at once; only then will they become men again. Until the task is finished, she cannot utter a word or a sound.

Sorcha accepts the burden willingly, for she would do anything to save her brothers. But the twin pains of starwort and silence are only the beginning of what she must suffer to fulfill her quest, which takes her far away from her beloved forest and brings her face-to-face with the full range of human evil and brutality.

Daughter of the Forest is a lovely tale of devotion, sacrifice, steadfastness, and fulfillment. Authors who work with fairy tales often twist or transpose them in some way (it's interesting to compare this book to Peg Kerr's The Wild Swans, a very different treatment of the same legend). Marillier, instead, expands the fairy tale, retaining its literal structure and all its fantastic details, but focusing her attention on the human story within the magical frame. Despite the strong plot elements, this is principally a character-driven book; much of what happens to Sorcha and the others is beyond their control, but it's their reactions to these events, and the choices their own individual natures lead them to make in response, that truly shape the narrative. These intelligent, convincing characterizations are the book's greatest strength, an especially impressive achievement for a first-time author.

The events of Daughter of the Forest are entirely shaped by magic, but Marillier manages to make her story very concrete, through carefully-chosen domestic and historical details and Sorcha's own engaging, unsentimental first-person narration. That's not to say that the magic, when it does come to the forefront, isn't properly awesome and mysterious: Marillier is as skilled at evoking the supernatural world as she is at portraying the more ordinary one. Especially good is the ambiguity with which she invests her magic -- from the casual callousness of the Fair Folk (who use and discard human beings with no more thought than they might give to pieces on a gameboard) to the painful consequences of bewitchment (Sorcha's brothers cannot return unchanged from their time as swans) to the interesting suggestion that the lady Oonagh, with her dark malice, may be in some way be the same as the nurturing Lady of the Forest.

Daughter of the Forest is complete in itself, despite being only the beginning of a trilogy. There are hints of a larger story, though: it's clear that the Fair Folk have a long-term agenda, and have chosen the people of Sevenwaters to fulfill it. Presumably this will be followed in future volumes. If they're as excellent as the first, fantasy will have gained a powerful new voice in Juliet Marillier.

Copyright © 2000 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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