We'll follow young Bran whenever he calls, to dance with the son of the shadows
Daughter of the Forest could easily have been a standalone novel. The fairy tale it told was finished, the characters journeys complete, there was even as close to a happily ever after as might be possible in such a realistic world. Yet, there were still loose ends hanging , in particular the marked absence of a certain evil sorceress, and a very notable prophecy. Combine this with the fact that Daughter of the Forest had just been plain fantastic to read, and it should be obvious why my lady and I decided to start on Son of the Shadows so quickly.
Liadan is the most contented of Red and Sorcha's children. While her hot-headed brother Sean anticipates his upcoming wedding and his chance to prove himself as a leader, and her beautiful, restless sister Niamh longs for a wider world than the forest of Sevenwaters, Liadan is more than happy to follow in her mother's footsteps, learning the healing arts and taking care of the people of the holding. Even marriage seems a distant prospect, since of course the older and more desirable Niamh will naturally wed first. Yet, fate's paths are rarely so straight forward. For outside the forest of Sevenwaters trouble is brewing, as the continual war between Britain and Éire for control of the Sacred Isles sees a new player, the Painted Man, a mercenary captain whose band display a mastery of combat which is almost magical, and at a distance, a powerful and ancient evil is stirring, a force which strikes fear even into the hearts of wise druids or ageless Fae. Yet in the end, Liadan's destiny will be fulfilled not by prophecy or magic, but the love she chooses for herself.
One of the first things that will become obvious in Son of the Shadows, is that so many of the strengths of Daughter of the Forest are in full force in its sequel. Marillier once again brings post-Roman Ireland to life in vivid and stunning detail. Everything from Liadan's work in healing, to the lush forests of Sevenwaters, even the traditions of daily life from the mysterious and ever present nature of the Fae and the old powers, to the work of picking herbs or lighting fires. Indeed, likely because we see far more of Sevenwaters itself, Marillier goes even further into Celtic traditions and law here, including festivals, worship and tale telling, often weaving these into the plot in subtle and surprising ways, with the tales frequently telling us as much about story teller and listener as they do about Irish legend.
The setting also resembles Daughter of the Forest in displaying magic as a real and overt force which people live alongside. On several occasions, Marillier includes moments which other fantasy writers would make much of, but presents them just as parts of the descriptive beauty of the landscape, making it quite easy to believe that a regular occurrence at a harvest festival would be a druid lighting a sacred fire from a flame conjured in his hands. Of course, this isn't to say magical elements of the plot are simply background either, indeed, this is probably one of the best portrayals of the fair folk I've seen, giving them a very definite purpose and set of intentions, yet making them entirely amoral, uncaring of who gets hurt in achieving their goals.
Yet, for all its poetry and magic, it's the characters that take centre stage, and here; once again, Marillier doesn't disappoint.
It is odd, where Daughter of the Forest garnered almost universal acclaim, Son of the Shadows, for all it still has a following, has many more detractors. One reason often cited by them is Liadan. In many ways Liadan resembles her mother, a skilled healer, unafraid to do what needs to be done, with a fanatical loyalty to those she loves. True, she is a little more active and feisty than Sorcha, then again unlike Sorcha Liadan doesn't have a curse preventing her from speaking. What sets Liadan apart from Sorcha however, and the reason I suspect she's not as beloved as her mother, is the place she holds in the story.
Where Sorcha was unquestionably the character who suffered most, here, Liadan's role is far more often sitting on the side lines witnessing the suffering of others (especially through her gift of visions and mental connection). However, much like her mother, Liadan is never prepared to just stand by and watch others (especially those closest to her) suffer, and quite willing to risk her own life, and even sometimes more, to put a stop to it. But Liadan also possesses another characteristic which is incredibly unusual in fantasy protagonists, she is genuinely content with her lot. In so many other books, Niamh, the beautiful sister, desired by all, who longs to leave home and wants a more wide ranging prospect than marriage to some lord, would be the protagonist, yet here it is Liadan, the girl who wants nothing more than to take over her mother's position as the holdings' principle healer and stay in the forest, the good girl whom so many people around the holding call the heart of Sevenwaters. Indeed, even when Liadan receives her first stiff and awkward offer of marriage, an offer that surprises her, it is painfully obvious to the reader that the mature, stable and competent Liadan is a far more well-rounded person and a far more desirable mate than her older, more alluring, but also rather spoiled sister.
Yet, there is a good reason why Tolkien began his own fantasy story with a stay at home, middle aged hobbit bachelor, rather than some young buck eager for adventure. This is because characters like Liadan have far more interesting places to go, far more interesting journeys to make; and in many ways, far more opportunities to show their metal when they are thrown out of that comfortable home environment than characters who already long for a wider horizon, and this is exactly what we see here.
With so many of the other characters, Marillier shows a definite sense of subtlety, in particular in keeping Red and Sorcha predominantly in the background of the book so that it can remain the story of their children. Thus, Liadan's brother Sean initially appears a sympathetic person, being young and in love and happily betrothed, but quickly shows himself to have a tendency to snap to quick judgements of anyone who threatens to upset his ordered life, yet it is Sean with whom Liadan shares an intimate mental connection, much as Sorcha did with her brother Finbar. Indeed, speaking of unpleasant, we see the lasting consequences of Oonagh's curse on Sorcha's brothers in heart-breaking detail, with Liam, once the peacemaker of the group turning harsh and dictatorial, Finbar still caught between two worlds and alien to both, and even Conor, the wise and patient Druid very much a man with his own weaknesses.
Another reason why Son of the Shadows has garnered criticism, is that this is a book where a lot of mistakes happen, especially surrounding the sister's marriages. One thing I found fascinating, is the way that Marillier once again deals with an incredibly traditional, hidebound society, and yet always thinks of her characters' motivations first. Where in so many authors, the men of a male dominated society are all faintly alien things with beards, whose interactions with normal female humans are all one way authoritarian, here Marillier makes it clear that even though this is very much a society where men make decisions and women must abide by those decisions, that doesn't necessarily make all of the men, or all of the decisions they make automatically despicable or high handed, for all that when men do make mistakes, women are often left to pay the price for them. Many people criticise the fact that when first Niamh, and then Liadan get themselves into a similar situation, the way they are treated is entirely different, and grossly unfair to Niamh, even withholding a vital piece of information which would at least mitigate some of the radical unfairness. Yet, Marillier makes it clear that this decision was unquestionably a bad one, not only for Niamh, but for her family, made as it was out of fear and (I suspect), because Red in particular, was having other concerns at the time, and Sorcha was not even consulted. Liadan's comparatively liberal treatment later, was far more an effort to not repeat a mistake, than just giving the main character a pass. This doesn't necessarily make that bad decision or what Niamh goes through because of it any more pleasant to read about, but I do appreciate the way Marillier allows her characters to be fallible, make mistakes, and yet try to rectify them, rather than having things remain one note.
Similarly, Liadan's romance here is a very different affair to Sorcha and Red’s. The Library Ladies blog notes that where Sorcha's romance was slow and gentle, requiring patience and compassion on Red's part in order to overcome the damage caused by Sorcha's rape, here the romance is almost the opposite, with Liadan and her lover; Bran's feelings sparking while they work together in a stressful situation, and that here it is Liadan who must be patient with her man's damaged nature.
Unfortunately, this doesn't particularly make Bran nice to be around. While the term "misogyny" has become rather overused and consequently watered down these days, Bran is misogynist in the absolutely literal sense, frequently ranting about the supposed inequities of women, and occasionally behaving like a right royal arsehole to Liadan, something which of course, she is not prepared to simply sit there and take.
Yet, where I initially thought Marillier was writing a snarky, trope ridden romance, with boy and girl disliking each other and even the "You're a girl you can't do thing x!", "Oh yes I can! I'll show you how good at thing x I am!" moment, much of this is explained by the time we get Bran's history, which makes up the latter part of the book. Indeed, much like Sorcha's phobia of men, Bran's mistrust of women, and even his occasionally abrupt changes from sarky douche, to caring nice guy are explained incredibly well with reference to his past, since once again Marillier shows that if an author is going to touch upon serious subjects like childhood trauma and sexual abuse, they should be treated with gravity and compassion.
Bran's attitude towards women also contrasts markedly to how decently so many other men (even prison guards) come across, which makes said attitude, and indeed that of the couple of other villainous men stand out even more.
The only minor issue with the book on a character level, other than the occasional natural unpleasantness towards characters we like, is with the book’s final villain. An initially complicated character and one we here two sided opinions about, unfortunately, he comes down with a severe case of Prince Hans syndrome, remaining a comparatively reasonable, or at least ambiguous person all the way through the book, and then, suddenly going from zero to eeeeeevil, at the drop of a revelation. Also, it's a severe loose end that, while one scumbag gets a good dollop of just desserts in an incredibly fitting and character driven fashion, the main villain of this book is never dealt with, making little sense on either a literary, or even political and military level.
The only other minor problem with the book is that with its gentle, detailed style, and again somewhat archaic dialogue, Son of the Shadows moves rather slowly. Indeed, without the impetus of the fairy tale to carry the plot forward as Daughter of the Forest had, the pace was decidedly ponderous at times. That being said, for all it’s a slow burn, the latter part of the book was far better structured than its predecessor, since rather than having the climax three hours before the end then an over extending the epilogue, here, matters build gradually, and once the climax happens, the tension does not stop in dealing with the fallout, drawing many threads together, from alliances and betrayals, to promises kept, Liadan's healing abilities, the decisions of ancient powers, and even some heartbreaking links back to the previous volume as well. Indeed, the way that the final part of the book primarily revolves around exploring Bran's backstory, and showing how healing comes through understanding is incredibly lovely.
Much that was good in Daughter of the Forest is still present here, however it's in the structuring of its plot that Son of the Shadows differs. This is where things get complicated, since while Marillier has several down turns, such as Niamh decidedly getting the short end of the stick as compared to her sister, or Bran's occasionally unpleasant attitudes and his overall adversarial relationship with Liadan, nasty though such things are, at the same time, so much of this is directly explained and resolved, often by characters simply realising the mistakes they've made, that my opinion of the book actively changed while I was reading it, especially towards the end.
Though not perhaps feeling as complete a story as Daughter of the Forest, not with its entirely unresolved villain and occasionally slow pacing, at the same time Son of the Shadows is still absolutely fantastic. Oddly enough for a book set at a time of regular war and conflict, in a society where women are often mistreated, and not withholding some of the genuinely awful things that go on, Son of the Shadows is a strangely positive story. In the end, just as in Daughter of the Forest, bad things happen, often leaving people incredibly messed up, but with time, patience, and love, hurts can be healed, and something better grows from the ashes.
And of course, with yet more plots left open; in particular surrounding Niamh's fate and an intentionally ambiguous character, and some obvious setup for its concluding volume, there is no doubt my lady and I will be returning to Sevenwaters very soon.
Review by Dark
8.9/10 from 1 reviews
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