Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier (The Sevenwaters Trilogy: Book 1)

Like many books I’ve read, Daughter of the Forest was a recommendation from my lady. Indeed, I first read it in 2015, just a few days before flying to America to spend Christmas with her family where I got engaged. I was so obviously distracted, I wasn’t really in a state to write a review, which, given how good Daughter of the Forest is, was a bit of a shame, and something I am now going to set right.

Sorcha loves her six brothers. Youngest child of Lord Colum of Seven Waters; a small holding in post-Roman Éire (Ireland). With her mother dying at Sorcha’s birth, and the distant lord Colum throwing all of his efforts into war against the invading Britains, Sorcha has been raised by her brothers, the seven of them forming a single whole, like the seven streams which give the holding its name. Yet, there are worse threats than the Britains, for when Lord Colum unexpectedly marries again, his new wife; the enchantress Lady Oonagh, wastes no time in beginning her campaign of malice and magic against his children, finishing by transforming Sorcha’s six brothers into swans. Sorcha’s only hope of breaking this spell is a cruel task set by the fair folk, to spin, weave and sew six shirts from the nettle like starwort; whose barbed fibres cause agonising pain at the merest touch, without uttering a sound. This task will take Sorcha far from Seven Waters and the forest she loves, forcing her to endure hunger, cruelty and heartache. She will find kindness in unlikely places, face threats both subtle and savage, see how narrow the distance is between friend and foe, and learn that love might in the end prove the greatest magic of all.

It is not really surprising that Grimm’s tale of the six swans, (though the version I heard as a child had eleven), is one which gets missed from fairy tale compilations or modern retellings; (I really can’t imagine Disney making it into an upbeat musical). Yet, it is a story whose very premise becomes more horrific the more you think about it, especially to anyone who's ever grabbed a handful of nettles. So I understand why it inspired Marillier’s first novel. What is more surprising, is just how Marillier managed to expand the fairy tale while staying comparatively true to it.

The first obvious way in which the story expanded, is that rather than being set in a non specific semi-medieval land of princesses and castles, this is very much a tale of the forests of Ireland. Marillier’s gift with description, place and explanation is simply breath-taking, portraying a world which is as real as it is mysterious. Rarely have I had quite as visceral a sense of what foraging for food in a forest, or sitting in a firelit log hall hearing tales is like, wind and weather, arms and swordplay, or Sorcha’s own talent as a healer and herbalist are picked out in stunning detail.

The same goes for the book’s fantasy aspects. Although the fair folk are always a presence, ineffable and changeable as the tides, I haven’t often had quite as much idea of a world where people simply lived alongside them. A world where; if a cotter’s son disappeared into the woods for a night and came back an old man, it was a tragic, but not unusual occurrence. The same goes for Sorcha’s ability to speak mind to mind and share mental pictures with two of her brothers, or the occasional flashes of foresight or prophecy, Sorcha simply accepts them as a part of life, no more or less wonderful or mysterious than the growing of a tree or the hoot of an owl, and so do we. Indeed, it’s interesting that where in some books, nebulous, and unquestioned magic feels like a weakness, here, with Marillier’s mix of the mundane and spiritual, and the way the magic interweaves through the books setting, the mystery itself was a strength.

Going along with this, the story’s politics has a wonderfully small immediacy to it, a world where a lord is as much an agricultural planner, community leader and magistrate as commander or ruler. A world where two or three lordships of a few miles arranged marriages and alliances, and where war was more of an occasional hazard, than a constant fact. Indeed, the sensitive way that Marillier paints the conflict between the Britains and the native Irish, and Christianity and pagan beliefs is truly fantastic, with neither side being “right”, or “wrong”, nor yet both sides being “as bad as each other”, rather both sides simply including a variety of people, some better, some worse, though both bearing an understandable legacy of bad blood.

Even though Sorcha is very much a pagan, with her beliefs about the spirits of the woods and her interactions with trees and herbs intimately bound up with her faith, and she is largely ignorant of Christian beliefs, the kindly old hermit Father Brian who taught Sorcha and her brothers to read is a Christian, a fact which Sorcha also simply accepts.

Another aspect of the world Marillier deals with with admirable subtlety, is the role of women in an Iron Age society. On the one hand, Marillier describes the skills allotted to women, from textile arts, to gathering food in the forest, and especially Sorcha’s knowledge of herb lore and midwifery, as the difficult and genuinely detailed skills they are, no less worthy of professional admiration than other crafts; indeed the very descriptions of Sorcha’s spinning, weaving and sewing the shirts would give me finger ache even without the starwort.

Yet at the same time, Marillier makes no bones about the fact that this is a world where men very much hold authority. Even Sorcha’s brothers occasionally speak for her or seek to dictate her movements in a misplaced attempt at protectiveness. This is also a society where arranged marriages are simply the norm, and that while some work out well, others definitely do not. All that being said, Marillier nowhere engages in preaching or sermonising, and all of the assumptions are background ones, indeed even Sorcha’s chief objection to the idea of an arranged marriage at the start of the novel, is more a twelve year old’s desire for things to stay the same, than an objection to the concept of arranged marriage generally.

The very fact that none of Marillier’s characters discuss these inherently sexist assumptions, combined with the variety of characters, male and female, good and bad, makes the very way she deals with gender relations all the more powerful than many books with a more overtly “feminist” slant.

Where in most fairy tales multiples of people always tend to get lumped into one block; seven dwarves, twelve princesses, six or eleven or however many brothers etc, Marillier is careful to give all six of Sorcha’s brothers distinct and different personalities, from Liam, the leader and peacemaker, to the restless Finbar, Sorcha’s closest friend. Yet, Marillier also never falls into the trap of simply giving the brothers one character trait apiece and letting it go at that, Cormack the warrior loves his dog, Conor, scholar and druid in training also has an oddly harsh streak and so on. Indeed, it is the very fact that we, along with Sorcha, get to know and like her brothers, that makes the swan enchantment and the lengths Sorcha must go to to break it such an overwhelming presence in the story.

This rich characterisation also goes for others Sorcha meets later, from the man she eventually marries, to even friends and enemies she meets along the way. The bitchy mother in law of the original fairy tale here is given quite a nuanced, if still occasionally unpleasant portrayal. Even the book's villains such as Lady Oonagh have a decidedly complete horribleness to them, able to spread their cruelty into many different spheres, and wound with words or actions as much as with magic or violence.

The one problem with all of this careful detail is that it does slow the pace down. Lady Oonagh does not appear until three hours through a twenty hour novel, and though the preceding events (disconnected though they initially seem), have a great relevance later, there is no denying that even Marillier’s descriptive style is rather ponderous. This does not matter in moments of beauty or extremis, but is a little trying when the steaks are less pressing. To add to this problem, while the book is told entirely in first person from Sorcha’s perspective, the book’s dialogue is written in formal, declarative speech which takes a bit of getting used to, and often feels needlessly long winded, albeit for the most part the character’s personalities show through all the same.

One character who shows through most of all, is Sorcha herself, and not just because the book is told entirely in first person from her viewpoint. If you asked me to define heroism, I’d say it is not courage over fear, or even facing danger, but pure and simple persistence, someone like Frodo from Lord of the Rings, someone who endures for the sake of others. Sorcha embodies that kind of heroism exactly, going through constant pain, and indeed partial disfigurement of her hands, as well as a number of other trials, all for the sake of her brothers. Yet, Sorcha is as real and flawed a person as anyone else in the book. At times childish (she is after all twelve at the start of the novel), arrogant, or despairing, with distinct gifts and shortcomings, occasional mistaken assumptions, yet always a desire to do the right thing and a purpose which she sees through to completion. Indeed, while I love a kickass lady warrior as much as anyone, in many ways Sorcha’s inherent toughness, shown through sheer willpower and willingness to sacrifice for those she loves is something I find far more inspiring. It's also refreshing that Sorcha is an incredibly strong female character, who faces some amazingly difficult obstacles, and yet never once does Marillier need to spell this out. Sorcha never rails against the lot of women, she just gets on with things, follows her purpose and her faith, and deals with the path ahead with the skills she has.

One of the worst trials Sorcha undergoes, is her casually brutal rape by two men whilst living alone in the forest. This is probably one of the single most horrible, and most shockingly realistic depictions of a sexual assault I’ve ever read. Marillier does not spare us details, either of the assault itself, Sorcha’s feelings, both physical and mental during it, and the profound impact it has on Sorcha afterwards, including her near phobia of men and her sense of shame and resentment.

Yet, to go along with this Marillier also tells us of Sorcha’s recovery, a recovery aided by the care and kindness she receives from several good men along the way; most notably the man she marries. Several reviews I’ve seen directly criticise Marillier for including this plotline, and while I can appreciate its extremely upsetting, at the same time, if an author is going to deal with a heavy subject such as sexual assault, Marillier shows the way it should be done, treating it with the gravity and seriousness it deserves, but being sure to show that though it leaves scars, recovery is still possible.

My only minor problem with Sorcha, is the inconsistency surrounding how well she can make herself understood without speech. She is directly forbidden use of writing or pictures and must communicate entirely through gestures. On a few occasions, we get a direct explanation of Sorcha’s attempts at sign language, and her frustration at being misunderstood by those around her, but more often, Sorcha as narrator will simply tell us; in the rather formal tones used for normal dialogue, what she said, often conveying quite complex concepts and ideas without any explanation as to how.

Since one consequence of this is to give a practical explanation for that old romance trope; two people desperately in love not talking to each other, to an extent Sorcha’s ability to make herself understood seemed very much to depend upon what the plot dictated.

The only other minor issue with the book is its concluding quarter. The final ordeal leading up to the climax is handled exceptionally, with a race against time and a brutal sadist, and Marillier really running things down to the wire. While it seemed almost odd that one particularly loathsome villain who had Sorcha at his mercy didn’t subject her to even worse treatment, at the same time, the very way he manipulates events, even making decent people powerless and twisting the lore to his own advantage had a frighteningly real cast to it.

Unfortunately however, once the climax had passed the book still had three hours to go. While Sorcha’s romantic plotline still needed to be resolved, I felt Marillier was severely dragging things out here, with some otherwise benevolent characters behaving in an uncharacteristically highhanded way, one of them even mimicking the casual cruelty of the Fae, and a rather needless prevarication when I just wanted to see that Sorcha was alright.

In addition, we unfortunately got little by way of pay back to the villains. We’re told one villain was “punished”, though given what a nasty piece of work he was, something a little more specific would have been welcome. Also, Lady Oonagh literally does a bunk before the conclusion, and though my lady informs me she comes into the trilogy later, this still felt like a bit of a let-down.

That being said, the final test, where a man of action must face a very different sort of challenge, and where all of the feelings are laid bare was extremely appropriate.

When it came, the resolution of Sorcha’s romantic plot, especially given the understandable legacy of her sexual assault, was highly triumphant, and though it is made very clear the fair folk have been playing a long game all along, and that there are major threads still to tie up, Sorcha very much earns her happy ending.

Despite an at times slow pace, a slightly two drawn out ending and somewhat overly formal dialogue, Daughter of the Forest is nothing short of fantastic! Gorgeous description, amazing world building, subtle characters, a road of trials that leads past some extremely dark places and one of the most awesome heroines I’ve encountered anywhere. While I admit, an association with my own rather fairy tale romance, and my attraction to tiny, gentle, indomitable ladies might contribute to how positively I feel about Daughter of the Forest, at the same time, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. Whether you’re a lover of animals and nature, history and spirituality, some wonderfully otherworldly fae, or just a classic story of perseverance being rewarded, you will find this a journey worth taking.

9/10 Six swans a changing

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