Though Marillier is one of the bigger names of the more feminine side of the fantasy genre, I didn’t come across her until late last year when my book provider internet site recommended that I pre-order the paperback of her most recent release (Heart’s Blood) and I did so without even reading up about the book. I then promptly forgot that I’d even ordered it and was very surprised when it appeared one day in the post. I did, however, absolutely adore this book and promptly ordered in another title by her. The Dark Mirror happened to be in the sales so I picked that one. Then, for one reason or another, I kept putting off reading it until this past week.
If you know me, you’ll know that I’ve been ill all week and that my illness sapped my ability to concentrate on anything at length. This book has been read around that illness and consequently I don’t really remember the beginning of the book all that clearly. I ask you to keep this in mind while reading the review.
Presentation: Mass market paperback. The font is small and closely-spaced. There are 561 pages broken down into 18 chapters so the chapters are rather long. The new chapters just continue on beneath the previous chapters rather than starting on a new page. For me, this means that I can never feel like I want to stop reading without the break between pages.
Story: Bridei is delivered to the druid Broichan for an education when he is but 4-years-old. He is unaware that plans for the future of the whole kingdom of Fortriu are being laid around him. He soon proves to be a bright young lad and an able student, quick to learn and wanting to please. Someone else seem to be aware of the secretly laid plans, though, as attempts are made on both Bridei’s and Broichan’s lives. Though both survive, the Shining One – the ancient goddess represented by the moon – bestows a present upon Bridei to help him in the future. This present comes in the form of a baby girl who is clearly one of the Good Folk and not human.
Despite his misgivings about her, Broichan allows the baby, Tuala, to stay in his house, swayed by the young Bridei’s conviction that he was meant to take her in; that this is what the goddess wanted. And so start the many trials and tribulations set by both mankind and the gods that both Bridei and Tuala must face in order to fulfil their destinies.
Thoughts and impressions: Though a fantasy title, this story is steeped in historical fact based on real people who crop up in the historical record. Unfortunately, the Picts did not leave a written record, and in an author’s note, Mariller states very clearly that a lot of the story is made up of informed guesswork and imagination. In particular, I really liked the religious aspects that Marillier presents based on other religious practises that took place in similar tribes in the same era. I had never heard of Bridei, Pictish king in the 5th century A.D., but I was familiar with the current events such as the Gaels increasing their spread to the Scottish Highlands and Christianity starting to seep into the various tribal cultures and replace the ancient faiths. I found how the aspect of religious change was handled particularly interesting, though I believe that this is touched on more in one of the later books of the Bridei Chronicles. I really enjoyed the exploration of the Pictish society.
Obviously, though, history is just a starting point for Marillier’s story. The inclusion of Tuala being a child of the Good Folk sets the story firmly in the fantasy genre. It was interesting to see Tuala and watch her grow up, but I never really connected with her very well. She was always set apart just that little bit too far for me to ever really be able to view things through her eyes. I felt sorry for her, of course, particularly when Broichan kept interfering to try to keep Bridei’s destiny to what he had foreseen and not what the gods had in store for him. Tuala knows as of a pretty early age that she’s in love with Bridei – love beyond the love that a foster sister feels for a foster brother – and she suffers through Broichan’s interference without complaint, but she still makes the weirdest of decisions, particularly towards the end of the book.
Bridei I found easier to connect with. He’s forced to face acts of human evilness as well as dealing with Broichan’s constant subtle prods to try to keep him right where Broichan believes he needs to be. One of the stronger scenes was after the battle with the Gaels and Bridei comes across part of their Pictish army herding the Gaelic women with the intention of raping the ones they wanted. The way that this appauls him speaks both of his reverence for females and his innocence regarding warfare.
However, despite all of this, both main characters seemed to come dangerous close to perfection. I’ve seen another person refer to it as feeling like they were watching all the cool kids playing but not being able to join in. It didn’t go quite that far for me, but I did notice that in everything that they do, both of these characters are extremely skilled – to the point where they’re better than their mentors within a very short span. That might be part of the reason why I could never be as close to the characters as I would have liked.
The romance itself isn’t particularly exciting either. Both characters just sort of have one of those light bulb moments when they go “Oh! But I love him/her!” I realise that the story is more based on their evolution and coming of age than it is on their romance, but it would have been nice if that plot point had had some more depth to it. It shouldn’t really be billed as a romance, because it isn’t really, it’s a historical fantasy and on the historical fantasy footing it stands very well. As a romance, though, it leaves something to be desired.
I would have liked to have seen more about the traitor plot, that’s my only really qualm here. The perpetrator is just kicked out of the plot and that’s the end of that but I’d have liked to have seen reactions to the knowledge of it coming out to the family and the consequences for the one behind it all. That’s not touched on at all and only the consequences on the family’s bearing are mentioned in passing.
At some point in the future, I suspect that I will go back to this series. Right now I’ve already got too many books to get through. My next Marillier read will be Daughter of the Forest which I’ve been told is absolutely fantastic so I’m certainly looking forward to that!
Style: Sometimes a little overbearing but that could be because my illness was already making it hard for me to concentrate and Marillier’s prose is definitely not of the light variety so it occasionally got the better of me.
Final verdict: As mentioned, as a romance, not so great, but as a historical fantasy it was very interesting! 4 stars.
Extra notes: I didn’t pick up on any swearing. There was no sex. There are some themes of violence and human sacrifice.