Book III of the Bridei Chronicles from Juliet Marillier begins with the trusted bodyguard/assassin of White Hill—Faolan—already well on his journey into the land of the Gaels to reconcile with the family he fled more than a decade before, to carry a dead friend's final words to the next of kin, and to spy on the Christian leaders in that region for Bridei, the king of Fortriu. On the back cover of the novel, a marketing person has described the young lady that Faolan finds at his friend's “home” while on his threefold mission as “the lovely young woman Eile, whose beauty shines forth despite her tragic circumstances.” I won't deny that Eile's circumstances are tragic, and the actions she takes to free herself of them gave her some worth in my eyes, but I never grew to like the snappish, churlish girl. I ended up rooting for her for Faolan's sake, as many of the characters do. Despite Eile's unlikeability (for me), this novel sang with both familiar and new characters to Bridei's main storyline.
As I hint here, the May-December romance between the sixteen-year-old Eile and her father's friend Faolan is only one plotline that develops along the path to another plotline in The Well of Shades. Faolan gathers information for King Bridei while out and about, and brings back news of a Christian missionary's movements and influence. What readers may find most intriguing about this storyline is its foundation in historical fact. As with her first two novels in the series, Marillier pulls from the sparse history of the picts, weaving a fiction story among the bits of facts researchers know and “good guesses” scholars and writers can make. She mixes in a worried druid in search of answers and absolution; a toddler mage with powers neither he nor his parents truly know how to control; a devious, bored princess; and some settings in juxtaposition to each other (such as Eile's experience with the “noble” lady, Aine, at Blackthorn Rise in contrast to her experience with the queen, Tuala, at White Hill). What Marillier ends up with is a tale with many layers that feed into one another wonderfully. As with her first two novels in the series, her descriptions may seem tedious at times, but they give a reader a very deep feel for nuances of the world these characters live in. Something I did not notice in the first two novels, but found distracting in The Well of Shades, was Marillier's use of repetition. She reviewed material often enough that it stood out and bothered me. It reminded me of later Terry Goodkind narratives.
Overall I enjoyed The Well of Shades immensely and was pleased with the way Marillier brought families together, tied up the story of Tuala and her parentage, gave insidious characters their due, etc., but I feel I must give new readers a warning. While the relationship between Tuala and Bridei bordered on “unease” for me at first due to their close upbringing as almost brother and sister, it is something the reader can get past pretty easily. But in this third novel, the underlying theme of incest nagged at the back of my mind. Sensitive readers may be uncomfortable if they can't get past a sixteen-year-old girl being abused by her uncle, Bridei and Tuala having a second child, or Tuala sharing/reliving with her father a vision in which he performs the sexual act in which she was conceived. While none of the sex scenes in this novel are explicit, the “unconventional” ones could turn off sensitive readers. I would like to point out that Marillier's use of them is sparse and essential to the plot(s). Fantasy readers should be so delighted with her world and her fiction that the minor discomfort, if noticed at all, will be shortlived.
Review by Sandy Lender
1 positive reader review(s) for The Well of Shades
Megan from Western Australia
I deeply enjoyed reading the Well of Shadows but feel that the end is not complete. I am hoping for a fourth book.
9/10 from 2 reviews