Daughter of the Forest

by Juliet Marillier

 

The eponymous daughter, Sorcha, lives in the middle of the eponymous Irish forest with her six brothers. Their father, Lord Colum of Sevenwaters, constantly fights off English invaders, and generally leaves his kids to themselves, so long as the boys learn to fight. So the seven children grow up together, looking out for each other, even as they seek to develop their individual talents and interests. Daughter of the ForestAll in all, Sorcha is pretty happy with her life, and she can’t imagine ever leaving her home and the protection of her brothers. She’s content.

Daughter of the Forest is the story of a bunch of bad shit happening to her. It’s unusual to read a book, especially a fantasy, that gets so deep into such depressing territory so early. I mean, we know Rowling wasn’t afraid to turn Harry Potter 7 into a bloodbath, but that was the point; she felt like raising the stakes from what had been a children’s fantasy would be a powerful statement, and she was right. But the evil in the Potter universe never felt real. Despite going into Voldemort’s backstory, he was not a real character, merely a caricature of evil. By contrast, the ‘evil’ in Daughter of the Forest feels very real, indeed. I think this is partially because the fantasy elements were so low-key, compared to the constantly in-your-face fantasy of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings (wizards, dragons, dark lords- all that jazz).

Sorcha, on the other hand, witnesses or experiences very real and very ordinary acts of evil- betrayal, torture, rape, murder. Things that have been happening every day since the dawn of humanity. What’s extraordinary is that, due to a spell, Sorcha must endure all of this without speaking; if she speaks before she finishes sewing six shirts, one for each of her brothers, they’ll be doomed to live out the rest of their lives as swans.

Sorcha’s silence is intense. While I’m sure that Marillier isn’t the first author to create an interesting and believable silent character (Speak comes to mind, though I never read it), her characterization of Sorcha is a testament to her skills as a writer. I’d be reading for half an hour on the bus, get off at my stop, and wonder why I felt so out of it; Marillier had gotten into my head, letting me feel Sorcha’s disconnection from the rest of the world. It’s a pretty fine line to walk, but the character totally works. She’s mesmerizing.

I don’t want to get much further into the plot, on account of potential spoilers, so I’ll cut this short. I would like to reiterate that this a fantasy, albeit an unorthodox one. Several times, people asked me if I was reading a romance novel, based entirely on the cover of the book. My guess is that it played out like this:

Swans count as females when judging a book by its cover

Swans count as females when judging a book by its cover

Having a female protagonist doesn’t turn your book into a romance novel. Maybe that was too obvious to mention, but I felt I had to say it.

(I do agree that most fantasy covers are stupid. I like fantasy, as you can probably tell by how many of them I’ve read in the last couple years. Daughter of the Forest, in fact, was recommended to me by a friend who knows I get down with fantasy.  But oh so many fantasy tropes are stupid. Titles, character names, illustrations, whatever. I think fantasy would be taken way more seriously if it didn’t look like it was marketed to teenagers. This is by the way.)

So I felt like Daughter of the Forest delivered, with a unique character and an interesting story; Marillier clearly loves and knows folklore. There are two more books in the series, and I haven’t decided on whether to read them yet. But if/when I do, you know I’ll be bloggin’ it up.

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