rosiphelee: (Wild Swans)
[personal profile] rosiphelee
So, a book review, which I don't do very often, but I've got a lot to say about this one, especially as some of my reactions to it have kickstarted my muse in unexpected ways. I shall also warn you that parts of this review may sound unfair, because I found this book fairly amiable. My problems with it lay with all other things the author could have done with such promising source material. Spoilers within.

Title: Daughter of the Forest
Author: Juliet Marillier
Genre: Celtic Romantic Fantasy / Fairytale retelling



Marillier's book retells the fairytale of the Six Swans, varients of which were recorded by the Brothers Grimm, as well as retold by Hans Christian Anderson. The story tells of family of six princes and their beloved younger sister. The brothers are transformed into swans by their wicked stepmother. They flee, carrying their sister in a net between them. The sister discovers that the only way she can save them is to make them shirts out of nettles. Until her task is done, she is forbidden to speak, lest her brothers never become human again. She hides in the woods to make her shirts, but is discovered by a king, who marries her. His mother, suspicious of this silent stranger, uses various strategems to cast suspicion on her, including stealing her children and eventually having her condemned as a witch. The girl never breaks her silence, but continues to make her shirts. She is condemned to be burnt as a witch, but has not yet finished the seventh shirt, which still lacks a sleeve. When she is on the pyre her brothers return as swans and she throws the shirts over their necks. They are all transformed back into their human selves, save her youngest brother who retains a wing instead of an arm where his shirt was missing a sleeve. The girl can now defend herself, and is so cleared of all charges and lives happily ever after. There is also a similar story from Irish mythology, that of the children of Lir, who are transformed into swans for a thousand years, and eventually, when the spell is broken, crumble into dust.

Marillier takes the story and transfers it to a setting which bares some vague resemblance to early medieval Ireland. Her family are the children of a pagan chieftain, engaged in a war against a peculiar race of late medieval Anglo-Normans whom they refer to as Britons. Sorcha is fairly uninteresting, but her brothers are well-characterised and by far the best part of this book. I particularly liked Padraic, the animal and bird-loving youngest, and Conor, the family wiseman. Sorcha is a healer, and the first significant event of the book revolved around her and one of her brothers rescuing a British captive and her attempts to heal him not just of his wounds but of the trauma he has suffered. Sadly, the interesting patient turned out to be a McGuffin. The plot generally follows the fairytale closely - the evil stepmother turns up and Sorcha runs away to hide in the woods. A violent and entirely gratuitous rape compels her to flee her hiding place so she can be rescued by the hero of the book, a 'Briton' who also happens to be the older brother of the captive she rescued earlier (he's called Hugh and comes from Northumbria - see why I decided to read this as an alternate world? I hate it when people can't be arsed to do their research properly). The reaction of his people to her unexpected presence was well done, and I really liked the way in which his mother was transformed from the wicked queen of the fairytale to someone with genuine concerns about the presence of an enemy captive in her household. The story pans out according to the fairytale, though Marillier bungs in an extra wicked uncle so as not to tar her perfect hero with any blame for Sorcha's suffering.

Oh, and our heroine doesn't turn sixteen until after her brothers are restored.

I did enjoy this as I was reading it, despite the snark. I finished it, and I don't finish books I don't like. I really loved the way Marillier characterised Sorcha's brothers - they were all distinct characters, yet the family connection was clear. On the other hand, I finished the book feeling less than satisfied, and that's what I'm going to talk about next, and where I might sound unfair.

My dissatisfaction sent me back to the fairytale. It's worth noting here that this is one of my favourite fairytales, which may make me pickier than I would be with other retellings. There are several features of this story which fascinate me, and they weren't things which Marillier chose to tackle in much depth. I've always wondered what happened to the poor youngest prince, who becomes a footnote to his sister's happy ending. I'm fascinated by the way the story could address disability and disfigurement, and by the ambiguous nature of female silence in the story - something which is so often a tool of oppression edges on becoming an act of power and resistance here. I like it for being more about families than romance. I wonder what it would be like for the brothers to adapt to being human again (admittedly, Marillier touches on this briefly, but she prioritises Sorcha's transformation from sister to wife above the transformations of her brothers).

Marillier didn't tell any of those stories, despite the early promise of those lovely brothers. Instead she told a story about female integration with the norm. By the end of the book, Sorcha, who defied her stepmother's attempts to make her conform to a proper upbringing, is happily married and pregnant and has settled in one place. Her sacrifices free her brothers to pursue their own quests, while she remains at home. There are hints early in the book about the brutality of warfare and the possibly terrible things the older brothers do. It would have been interesting to see Marillier draw some parallels between this and their loss of humanity when transformed. Marillier obviously read this as a story about healing and reconciliation, whereas I read it in a very, very different way. I found her approach dissatisfying, because all her heroine acheived was to restore the status quo in a slightly improved fashion. I like my heroines to learn something from their suffering, and, although Sorcha got some compensation in the form of her uninteresting hero and her restored brothers, I'm not quite convinced that the prizes were worth the price.

These thoughts will be producing something quite lengthy in time, but for the moment, anyone have any thoughts? I know these books are quite popular, so I'd be interested to hear counterarguments.
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rosiphelee

February 2012

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