Child of the Prophecy by Juliet Marillier (The Sevenwaters Trilogy: Book 3)

Given how good the first two books were, it should be no surprise that my lady and I started Child of the Prophecy so quickly. After all, the titular prophecy has been a looming presence right from the start, not to mention the vengeful sorceress Lady Oonagh, and while each of the previous stories had been complete in itself, it was obvious that in this volume, the saga of Sevenwaters would be coming to a climax.

Fainne can barely remember her mother, the beautiful Niamh who threw herself from the high rocks of Kerry when Fainne was only a small child. All her life it has just been her, her beloved father Ciarán the sorcerer, and, every summer, her best and only friend Darragh, a cheerful boy of the horse trading travelling folk. When Fainne’s grandmother Oonagh arrives however, everything changes.

Ciarán’s stern but gentle tuition in the craft of magic is replaced with Oonagh’s brutally harsh instruction in glamour and manipulation, forging Fainne into the perfect weapon of revenge. Fainne’s mission is simple: To disrupt the fulfilment of the prophecy which will see the sacred isles returned to the control of the Irish, and the balance of magic restored. Since winning back the isles requires a military campaign resting on alliance and treaty, disrupting it should be easy, even for a shy, unworldly girl like Fainne. With Oonagh threatening Fainne’s father with torture and suffering, Fainne has no choice but to leave for Sevenwaters and begin her task, and after all this is the family who left Fainne’s mother to an abusive marriage, causing the damage that led to her death. Yet Fainne has little idea of the path awaiting her, the cruelty of love, the true price of vengeance, or even her own nature, since Fainne is more than a sorcerer’s daughter apt to evil, Fainne is also a child of Sevenwaters.

In some ways, Child of the Prophecy is very much what we’ve seen before. Marillier’s gift in depicting a world brimming with beauty and colour comes back in full force, with so much of life in tenth century Ireland; from horse trading to taking care of children, given a sweet and homely reality. In another sense however, Child of the Prophecy is almost uncomfortably jarring. Magic, the druids and old powers like the Túatha Dé Danann; the Fair Folk, have always been there in the background, as ever present and unseen as the forest trees or the tides of the sea. Here however, Marillier shoves magic straight in your face. From the first scene when Fainne casually lights a fire with the wave of her hand, it becomes absolutely clear that we’re dealing with very different aspects of the world and very different priorities here. By rights, this really should not work at all, turning a grounded historical fantasy into the tale of a literal sorcerer’s apprentice, and yet it does. Partly this is due to a lot of previous setup, after all Oonagh has always been the most overtly magical element of the trilogy, partly it is because of the strong basis of Irish myth and Pagan beliefs Marillier grounds her world’s magic in, but mostly it is because Marillier’s writing approaches things with such care and thoroughness that everything hangs together and nothing feels excessive or tacked on. I particularly loved the revelation by Oonagh that the descendants of Sevenwaters all have innate powers including healing, a fact which perfectly explained the callings and expertise of Sorcha and Liadan in the previous books; gifts which Fainne is denied. Indeed, with the rise of humanity and destruction of the old world as a constant theme, it’s interesting that even though we get a fair idea of what Fainne’s capabilities are, this feels so at odds to Connor’s gentle druidic powers or indeed the magic of Sevenwaters, even if it can achieve some of the same results, an outboard motor in a world of canoes.

It's not just with its magic and setting that Child of the Prophecy takes a new direction, but also in the whole emphasis of its plot. Both Sorcha and Liadan’s adventures started in a grounded domestic setting, giving us a good impression of the life of Sevenwaters through characters who fundamentally belonged there. Fainne’s story is extremely different, beginning with an absolute outsider who has lived an almost monastic, lonely life. By making Fainne an outsider Marillier was able to re-examine the world, such as Fainne feeling that the forests of Sevenwaters were close and oppressive as compared to the seashore of her home, not to mention the fact that where Sorcha and Liadan began with an excepted place as part of a family, Fainne begins as a distant cousin, meaning that characters like Liadan’s brother Sean, current lord of Sevenwaters and his lady Aisling, are people whom Fainne is meeting for the first time. Indeed, Marillier uniquely has the audience often know more than Fainne about the characters she meets.

This contributes to the chief downer people have about this book, Fainne herself.

In some ways, Fainne is almost the typical fantasy protagonist. A teenager with special powers who finds themselves forced to journey to the home of their enemies to complete a difficult and dangerous mission, battling their own insecurities and uncertainties along the way. Even with Fainne’s mission being against the family whose story we’ve been following for the first two volumes, it’s almost inevitable that Fainne will come to see the truth, change her allegiance and deny her evil grandmother in the end. Marillier however is way too skilful a writer to be swayed by what is inevitable, because Fainne is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of a truly morally grey protagonist. While there are some factors which let us sympathise with Fainne’s situation, her isolation, her feelings for Darragh, even the fact that she’s very much an introvert, Marillier pulls no punches in making Fainne not just dislikeable, but also hover on the edge of villainy.

Naïve, yes, but also with a spiteful streak, Fainne does several things during the book which are simply evil. Though Oonagh does influence Fainne with a magic amulet, Marillier nowhere takes the easy way out of having Fainne controlled directly and thus free of responsibility, since though the amulet undoubtedly has an effect, Fainne’s actions are still very much her own. Fainne does grow, come to trust others, and form some genuinely heart-warming connections with her new family along the way. She is even quite aware of the harm she’s doing and the even worse harm she’s planning to do, but for every step she takes on the path towards the light, she always slides back, whether being simply nasty to Darragh, cavalier in the use of her magic, casually cruel in assuming the ends justify the means, or her stubborn belief that she, and she alone is in the best position to deal with things, despite the presence of people like her great uncle, the wise druid Connor; her father’s mentor, or heck, even elder magical powers.

Early in the book, Darragh; seemingly in a fit of innocently adolescent machismo, tells Fainne jokingly that she needs looking after, oddly enough, he ends up being proved right, since despite overwhelming magical powers, Fainne is not merely inclined to get herself into trouble, but an active danger to those around her, prone to absolutely terrible decisions. This makes Fainne’s journey radically different to either Sorcha’s or Liadan’s. Where both previous protagonists were definitely heroines; motivated very much by the good of others and prepared to suffer for others sake, I’ve rarely read a book where the protagonist was so close to becoming a literal villain, with even Fainne’s occasional fits of remorse always expressed in terms of how bad she feels, rather than focusing on the harm she’s done to others or how she might help heal it.

All of this makes Fainne not just a pretty difficult character to like, but pretty frustrating to spend time with, especially when she’s repeatedly resolving to try and change and then almost inevitably failing to do so.

For a lot of people, my lady included, this made the book a far less fun experience, which is understandable. For me though, the constant danger and uncertainty gave Child of the Prophecy a distinct direction, an unpredictability, and an overall knife edge tension that neither of the first two entries had. Indeed, while I suspected Fainne would follow the path of redemption by the end, I could equally have seen things ending with her tragic punishment. Marillier was however careful to keep Fainne the right side of being truly dislikeable, never letting her slip to the point that we ceased to care about her, since for every fall into evil or self-justification, there is some quietness, self-reflection and some genuinely touching moments of a lonely, naïve girl coming to trust others, albeit this makes Fainne’s backsliding all the more irritating.

In general, while I liked Liadan, and especially Sorcha rather more than Fainne, I often found Fainne the more compelling character to follow.

Seeing a shy and lonely girl coming to love her mother’s estranged family, including several adorable sisters, a good natured father and his busy kindly wife; not to mention her awesome aunty Liadan and Uncle Bran, would have been a sweet story, but not necessarily a thrilling one. Here though, there is always the tension in the background. Even when Fainne is making up fairy tales for her younger cousins, or helping her cousin Muirrin; the dedicated Sevenwaters healer and the one who feels as if she would have been the protagonist if Marillier was a more repetitive writer, there is the constant undercurrent of danger. Fainne continually plotting how she will get close to the campaign and ruin it, even considering which members of the family and alliance might be vulnerable, and how best to use magic, or even seduction to achieve this goal.

This meant, even as we were catching up with familiar faces, or heck, just stopping at the travelling folks’ fair for a bit of colourful dancing and some time with the ever decent Darragh, there was always that lurking edge of mystery and suspicion.

Even with the book’s more black and white moments, things remain complicated. Usually, seeing a slimy middle aged man running after a teenaged girl like Fainne would be a pretty one sided experience, accept that firstly, Fainne was actively and consciously encouraging this interest, since she was looking for a tool; (in multiple senses), to help in her destructive mission. Secondly, even when things go slightly out of Fainne’s control and said tool gets a bit too grabby, Fainne herself is never in actual danger of harm due to her powers, indeed the only reason this situation goes as far as it does, is because Fainne is trying to work out how to keep her tool’s interest, something she does with a political application of her charms worthy of Cersei Lannister.

It's also in keeping with the book that said tool is not exactly a one sided character either, and while a long way from being decent, he’s not a total villain; or at least there might have been a possibility of him being better than he is.

Two rather more problematic characters here are Johnny and Darragh. Darragh, Fainne’s childhood friend, horseman, piper and generally relaxed traveller, is arguably the nicest love interest we’ve seen so far in the trilogy, mostly because he’s the one who doesn’t feel artificially idealised to be an inspiring leader. The problem however, is that though there is obviously affection on both sides, equally Fainne’s treatment of Darragh is pretty unpleasant, with Fainne continually telling Darragh to leave to keep him safe from Oonagh, without explaining why, and Darragh continually turning up, even going as far as signing on to an army despite him being no warrior, just to make sure Fainne was safe. The first couple of times, this felt genuinely sad, but unfortunately the longer it went on, and the more vehemently Fainne pushed Darragh away, the more one-sided and down right nasty this relationship felt. Indeed, when Fainne mistakenly believed Darragh was courting a beautiful and free spirited horse breeder’s daughter, I was almost hoping her suspicions were correct, since often it felt Darragh really would be better off with someone kinder.

The second problematic character is Johnny, son of Bran and Liadan, and the titular child of the prophecy. Even before we meet him, people, from his young female cousins to his experienced uncle Sean, are roundly singing his praises. Then when he turns up, he’s not only the most amazing warrior in Ireland, but also someone people clammer to follow, an inhumanly nice guy, and of course has maxed every skill in the “awesome Irish battle leader”skill set. Indeed, he was reminding me strongly of Red Dwarf’s nauseatingly nice parody hero, Ace Rimmer. Even a scene in which Fainne torments Johnny from a distance with her magic, simply showcased his amazing physical fortitude, rather than eliciting my sympathy, though for the record my lady disagrees with me here.

Though Marillier remains as descriptively rich as ever, and even includes her slightly long winded dialogue, for the most part, the plot seemed to move more quickly than either of the other two volumes for the first two thirds. Indeed, every time things seem to be calming down, Lady Oonagh drops in for a bit of nastiness and intimidation to kick the plot into gear. Oonagh herself is a fantastically vile villain, someone who is just so bluntly and refreshingly, no holds barred evil, we just itch to see her get her just desserts. Indeed, this is another reason why Fainne often avoids being dislikeable, since there is no denying Oonagh is pretty terrifying, and thus her influence over Fainne is quite understandable.

Unfortunately, things did slow down slightly in the book’s final third which dealt with the military campaign, the conceit of having Fainne join Liadan and Bran in their training camp was rather too obviously authorial convenience rather than internal logic, especially since Conor made it pretty clear he suspected Liadan was up to no good. It was also at this point that Fainne’s prevarication started to feel artificially drawn out, especially with how both Fainne and Oonagh seemed insistent that the thwarting or fulfilment of the prophecy had to wait right until the last moment.

That being said, this final section did let us catch up with many of the non Sevenwaters cast of Son of the Shadows, and even provide some rather sweet closure to several stories, such as the faithful Gull who’d suffered so badly, and Finbarr, Sorcha’s brother still cursed with a swan’s wing, now acting as a sad and mysterious old mentor.

The book's ending was as spectacular as expected. In other hands the overt magic, as well as the sudden appearance of several characters might have felt too much, but Marillier managed to make it all hang together, even maintaining her descriptive gifts for elemental duels. The final conceit of how the prophecy is fulfilled, and Fainne’s eventual fate was also extremely well worked out, showing just how much of a long game the fair folk had been playing, filling in some reasons for their actions going right back to the first volume, as well as showing their slightly softer side. Despite Fainne’s ambiguity, the conclusion to her journey was perfectly satisfying, fitting incredibly well with the overriding theme of the protection of the old world and its magics, whether from encroaching humans, or the likes of Lady Oonagh; who I’m pleased to say also met an appropriate fate. Indeed, though perhaps not as straight off one shot dramatic as expected, Fainne’s karma is definitely balanced in the end, in a way which is not just a partial redress for Fainne’s actions, but also an apt use of her history and talents.

Child of the Prophecy is regarded by many (my lady included), as the worst of the series, largely because of its borderline villainous protagonist. Yet in many ways, I found it a more captivating book than either of its predecessors, perhaps not as simply beautiful as Daughter of the Forest, or as richly nuanced a character study as Son of the Shadows, but in terms of sheer uncertainty and that all important hook to keep reading, standing above either. Marillier achieves in Fainne the thing that so much fiction tries and fails at, the protagonist with almost unbeatable inborn magical power, who needs to recognise their own power to succeed. Yet, rather than a self-indulgent hymn to the protagonist’s specialness, we get a protagonist with a massive internal conflict, who on several occasions steps over the moral line into sheer evil, showing us just how dangerous power can be. Combine all this with beloved characters, an absolutely hissable villain, a gorgeous and poetic depiction of a historical world brimming with magic, and a genuinely compelling mystery, and you have something truly special.

This is why, despite its slightly draggy final section, mild authorial contrivance and occasionally frustrating protagonist, I can assuredly say that this is one trilogy which sticks the landing, finishing with its most disquieting, complex and compelling entry yet.

9/10 The one who will bring balance to the forest

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