Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters, #1) by Juliet Marillier

Rating: – – – – –
Date read: May 1 to July 15, 2017

I’m leaning toward 4 stars overall but with lots and lots of reservations which I can’t go into without hitting on spoilers. So beware of spoilers.

This book was Beth‘s pick for May and I just finished it today. In July. I’m not even sure where she is because we kind of let it drop after hitting a wall, but I think she’s still pushing on. I’d like to say it was my fault, because I’m usually the one dropping out of buddy reads, but this time it’s a combination of bad timing and a brutal rape scene that put a nail in this buddy read.

The story loosely follows the Six Swans fairy tale and it’s set in Medieval Ireland. There are druids, magic, and mysticism, and the writing does a lovely job of setting the scene and creating an otherworldly atmosphere. We follow Sorcha, the youngest and only daughter of a lord, and her six older brothers through their lives from when they lived at the castle in the middle of a strange magical forest to when tragedy struck and tore their family apart.

I had known of the rape scene going in–it’s part of some retellings of this tale–but I didn’t know about the aftermath, that the main character Sorcha had to live with it, alone and in silence, as she was in the middle of her vow of silence that she had to make to the fae in order to save her brothers. And then her dog, her only companion, was brutally killed. How much worse could it get, right? Not much worse, but bad things did keep happening. Sorcha had to continue knitting six sweaters from nettles to save her brothers and break the curse that turned them into swans.

I don’t like fantasies featuring the fae as it is, so when this scene happened, followed by the dog’s death and Sorcha’s suffering in silence and the fae’s meddling and the nettle knitting, I checked out. It was too much and the amount of brutality seemed somewhat unnecessary. But I get it–objectively, intellectually, whatever. I get why Marillier had Sorcha suffer in silence; I understand it from a big-picture perspective and see the need to portray the aftermath of rape, but still. It was too emotionally consuming, too close to real life, so I checked out and set the book aside. Every time I picked it up, I could only get through a couple of pages, and that’s why it took over two months to get to the end.

I’m glad to have read it because Juliet Marillier’s writing is always lovely and the stories she’s telling are much needed in fantasy. They exist in that tenuous border between folktale and historical fantasy, and Marillier weaves those elements so well, but this is one of those books I don’t think I’ll revisit. And I will pass on the rest of the series too, even though I know I’ll be giving up on an amazing world rich in history, culture, and magic.

Reading this book was kind of like a coming of age experience–I appreciate it and am glad I got through it, but I’m more glad it’s behind me now.

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My first Marillier was Heart’s Blood, a retelling of the beauty and the beast fairy tale, and I loved it. I went into Daughter thinking it was like Heart, and in many ways, it is. The setting, time period, prose, magic, and atmosphere are very similar, but the amount of suffering the main character is put through is incomparable.

Review: The Last Wish (The Witcher, #1) by Andrzej Sapkowski

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: August 12 to 20, 2016
Recommended by: Milda
Recommended to:

A fast fairytale-filled book of short stories that’s just right for anyone looking for subversive retellings with a wry humorous undertone. A big thanks to Milda for the rec.

Last summer, I had an odd, several-month long fairytale craving and just had to read my fill. The odd thing about it was I was specifically looking for Beauty & the Beast retellings, which led me to that boring Court of Thorns and Roses thing. Fortunately, I branched out after that and found Beauty by Robin McKinley, which was a nice pleasant read and a throwback to the days when I used to read Robin McKinley for fun–Beauty & the Beast retellings are Ms. McKinley’s specialty; then there was Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, which was another pleasant read and a huge surprise because it’s got the same look and feel and marketing as ACoTaR but the writing was so much better; and finally Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier which was so lovely and amazing and easily the best of the bunch.

In the midst of that fairytale-filled summer, there was this Witcher book that a friend recommended. Fun fact: it’s actually the inspiration for the video games, not the other way around. I didn’t know that at the start, so I think I went in expecting something similar to Assassin’s Greed but with magic and magical creatures, and that’s basically what it is. But to my surprise, there was a lot of depth to the world and characters and an assortment of mythological and fairytale creatures, and the writing was good. I’m not a fan of short stories, unless they’re part of a series I’m currently following, but I enjoyed these short episodic adventures of the Witcher’s and found that they work really well for this particular character and the life he’s led.

A witcher is a magically trained and transformed exterminator of the supernaturally wicked. He travels alone from town to town getting rid of monsters, many of which are straight from fairytales and folklore. But the world is a different place now than it once was in the time of previous witchers, and these “monsters” are no longer a threat to everyday life like they once were, some of them even live among people.

Geralt is a witcher going through an existential crisis because he is one of the last of his kind in a world that no longer needs his expertise or services. We follow him through six stories in which he has to face down and defeat something supernatural, as well as confront himself and his dwindling place in the world. Each monster makes him question the purpose of his job and life. Sounds like a downer, but it’s not. It’s a fast, adventurous read, interspersed by unsettling bouts of an existential crisis, but you know, minor details.

I don’t remember what I expected–Assassin’s Creed with magic maybe–but I know I didn’t expect the writing to have any depth or to be a lot of fun, while at the same time quietly poignant. Existential crises in a high fantasy setting can ruin everything run the risk of being too maudlin or comical or both. It wasn’t the case here. I found both the short stories and Geralt to be engaging and strangely realistic, within the context of his world but also outside of it. There’s something about him that rings true.

“I manage because I have to. Because I’ve no other way out. Because I’ve overcome the vanity and pride of being different, I’ve understood that they are a pitiful defense against being different. Because I’ve understood that the sun shines differently when something changes.”

[…]

“Justice will be done!”
“I shit on justice!” yelled the mayor, not caring if there were any voters under the window.

[…]

“The demand for poetry and the sound of lute strings will never decline. It’s worse with your trade. You witchers, after all, deprive yourselves of work, slowly but surely. The better and the more conscientiously you work, the less work there is for you. After all, your goal is a world without monsters, a world which is peaceful and safe. A world where witchers are unnecessary. A paradox, isn’t it?”

Like Geralt, I too had to spend a lot of time questioning my job and purpose in life and whatnot, etc etc. So I empathize with him on many levels. And if I had to kill monsters to make ends meet but the rest of the world no longer needed to have that done, then I’d probably empathize more.

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: June 24 to 27, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: friends on Goodreads
Recommended for: people who like dark fairy tales

Minor disclaimer:

I liked this book well enough and much more than I thought I would because, since it’s marketed as YA, I went in with some reservations. To my surprise though it’s not YA. Sure, the main character is a young woman and there’s some romance, but it’s not YA in the usual sense. So that was a relief. I just wanted to put that out there in case it helps anyone decide whether or not this book is for them.

 

First off, great story, solid writing, and an interesting take on combining fairy tale elements to tell a familiar yet original story. The style reminds me a lot of the Brothers Grimm but Naomi Novik adds enough of her own flavor to keep it interesting, and there’s a distinct medieval Eastern European feel to the setting and mythology which I really like. I don’t usually read or even like fairy tales, unless they’re dark and violent, but I enjoyed a good amount of this book because of its fairy tale elements.

Those the walkers carried into the Wood were less lucky. We didn’t know what happened to them, but they came back out sometimes, corrupted in the worst way: smiling and cheerful, unharmed. They seemed almost themselves to anyone who didn’t know them well, and you might spend half a day talking with one of them and never realize anything was wrong, until you found yourself taking up a knife and cutting off your own hand, putting out your own eyes, your own tongue, while they kept talking all the while, smiling, horrible. And then they would take the knife and go inside your house, to your children, while you lay outside blind and choking and helpless even to scream. If someone we loved was taken by the walkers, the only thing we knew to hope for them was death, and it could only be a hope.

What the book boils down to is a whimsical and funny, but at times dark, tale about a young peasant girl, Agnieszka, with latent magical powers who grows into them as she battles the evil plaguing her land. Every ten years, villages in the valley supply the Dragon, a powerful wizard who lives in an ivory tower, with a girl. His job is to educate and train her in the ways of magic so that she could help him hold back the Wood, the evil presence taking over the valley. And this year Agnieszka just happens to be the “lucky” girl.

As she adjusts to her new life in the tower, Agnieszka struggles with simple tasks and household chores which is quite amusing. It’s like a combination of the Disney-fied Beauty & the Beast and Cinderella with some Snow White mixed in. I enjoyed this bit of the story the most. Gradually though, the story progresses into darker realms as the Wood advances on the valley and more is revealed about what the Wood actually is. That’s when the story incorporates darker fairy tale elements from again Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel. And many more are woven into the plot. Novik uses quite a number of fairy tales, many of which seem vaguely familiar to me but I haven’t been able to identify them yet–and I’m still working it.

Overall, I like the way Novik writes. She has a nice way with words and her prose is oftentimes lovely but not saccharine like other fairy tale retellings I’ve read. And the way in which she uses fairy tale elements in the story is really clever. She makes them an instrumental part of the story. In many ways it’s subtle and organic and doesn’t encroach on the story at all, and in other ways it’s familiar and comforting to be reminded of all these stories I used to read as a child. Even the darkness in these stories bring back fond memories–of summer afternoons spent reading in the cramped library cubbies.

If you’re a fan of the Grimms’ classics, you’ll recognize many references and mentions and will enjoy how they’re made part of the magic and mythology. And if you’re familiar with Baba Jaga, you’re in for a treat.

That said, there are a few issues I have with this book, but it could be just me though. Other readers might be able to overlook these things just fine.

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* * * *  some spoilers & notes for myself * * * *

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