Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here @ Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Anyone is welcome to join in at any time!
The time has come. I knew when I started Retro Fridays that at some point I would have to review Daughter of the Forest. Do you ever go through the reviews on your blog and realize you haven't reviewed one of your favorite books of all time? And the reason is simply that you read it before the blog was even a twinkle in your eye. You may have talked about it here, there, and everywhere. You may have heckled dear friends shamelessly until they broke down and read it. But you haven't actually reviewed it. And the other day I realized that was the case here. Despite the fact that I've read everything Juliet Marillier has written, I've only actually reviewed two of her books. And so while I feel like I've talked and talked about it, it's only in references here and there. Okay, sometimes impassioned exclamations. But you catch my drift. So I decided it was only right to go back to the beginning and tell you how and why and when my love for this book began. And it began, as so many wonderful things in my life have, on a plane to Italy. I needed a book to read on the flight over to visit my folks, and I had been eyeing this one in the bookstore for awhile. I knew it was a retelling of the Seven Swans fairy tale, which was a mark in its favor even though I was pretty unfamiliar with that particular tale at the time. It was a debut novel by an Australian author with a beautiful French name. And it just looked so lovely. So I snagged a copy and cracked it open after my beverage service, with a lovely long night ahead in which to lose myself in the writing. Which I promptly did somewhere in the middle of the first paragraph.
Three children lay on the rocks at the water's edge. A dark-haired little girl. Two boys, slightly older. This image is caught forever in my memory, like some fragile creature preserved in amber. Myself, my brothers. I remember the way the water rippled as I trailed my fingers across the shining surface.
Shivers of delight, my friends. That's what that opening sent down my spine then, and that's what I felt just now as I typed it. Published over a decade ago now, this book loses none of its magic over time. Rather it grows stronger and more captivating with each read.
The seventh child of a seventh son, Sorcha is the daughter who should have been a son--that most magical of all beings--a seventh son of a seventh son. Instead she is a girl. And with six older brothers and a mother long dead, she grows up wild and free at the heart of the forest of Sevenwaters. And while her father, Lord Colum, has been ever distant and forbidding, her brothers have always been there to watch out for her and to teach her. Especially Finbar. So close that they are often able to tell what the other is thinking or feeling, Sorcha knows something is wrong when Finbar goes suddenly distant and troubled shortly after her father's men haul in a stranger from foreign parts found trespassing on their land. It's all very cloak and dagger, but it quickly progresses to a nightmare, when Finbar defies his father and sneaks the prisoner out under cover of night. Sorcha's healing skills are immediately called upon to treat the wounds her father's men inflicted upon him. In the meantime, her father shocks them all by marrying again. His chosen bride, the Lady Oonagh, fills the boys and Sorcha with an almost irrational fear. But it's not till the prisoner she has worked so hard to help disappears, followed shortly by her brothers, that Sorcha comprehends the magnitude of her danger. For a spell has been cast on those she holds dear. Turned into swans, her brothers are gone, only to reappear briefly each Midsummer's Eve. Prompted by the Fair Folk themselves, Sorcha makes a terrible bargain, exchanging her voice and her home for a faraway land, a stranger's protection, and the slimmest of chances to restore her brothers and her fragile peace.
A retelling of the Wild Swans fairy tale set in 9th century Ireland, this gorgeous historical fantasy shot right to the top of my comfort reads list the moment I closed the final page. Happily, in my experience, it has proved to be one of those books that binds people together through their shared love of its characters and their story. An example of a young woman triumphing over evil through love, sacrifice, and unfathomable determination, Daughter of the Forest is also a truly remarkable bit of storytelling. Sorcha is at the heart of it, with her love for her brothers, and the way she gives of herself, harnessing her considerable skills and will to bring them back from the brink of annihilation. What a daring feat of storytelling to strike your heroine literally silent for the majority of the book and still render her incredibly vibrant and active within the narrative. Everything comes together so perfectly in this book, as it is historical novel, fantasy epic, and flawless fairy tale retelling at once. And it is, of course, also a love story. How could it not be? Even now I find it difficult to express my feelings about this aspect of the story except to say that these two have one of the most tender, romantic, and equal relationships I've had the fortune to witness. The love story will lay you out flat, it's that outstanding. Here, a non-spoilery section taken from my very favorite scene in the book:
It was getting late. The beach was half in shadow, the sky darkening. I realized there would be no return to Harrowfield that night. He did not press me for my answer; he just stood there, watching the seals. waiting. He had done a lot of waiting. A scrap of parchment lay on the rocks behind him; the rising breeze threatened to snatch it away from the round stone that had held it there while the ink dried. There he had made his final meticulous markings that morning as he sat there in the sun; that morning that seemed, already, so long ago. But there were no tallies of cattle or crops on this page, only pictures, small delicate pictures in careful pen strokes. I had watched him at this task before, and marveled at how he could choose to work, and disregard the wonder of the place that surrounded him. But it seemed he had not needed to look, to know its beauty. For this sheet showed the open sky, and the smooth, shining surfaces of wet stones, and the curling lace of breakers. It showed the great seals with their knowing eyes, and the flight of the gulls against tiny scudding clouds. At the foot, very small, was the last image he had made. A young woman running, her hair blown out behind her like a dark, wild cloud, her gown whipped against her body by the breeze, her face alight with joy. Red reached across and picked up the parchment, slipping it out of sight between the boards and away into his pack. I thought, after all this time, I do not know this man. I don't know him at all.
And that is how she writes. That's the kind of breathtaking emotion Juliet Marillier can evoke in her characters and in her readers. Nothing could possibly erase my memory of this scene or my memory of reading it for the first time. Sorcha and Red. The wind on the waves. Her blue dress trailing in the sea. And so much unsaid between them. I think of it often, when I am in need of a quiet, perfect moment. The best part is, this scene is just one of many, including a climactic moment that had me literally losing my grip on the book and gasping aloud it is so intense. Those of you who've read it, you know the one I mean. Finest, finest kind.
And, if what I haven't said in this review is enough, here--perhaps the most accurate example of my love for this book--is my original copy as it looks now:
I know. It kind of makes me want to cry just looking at it. I tend to treat my books rather tenderly. And I'm pretty sure this is the most shocking state any of mine are in. But really what can you expect when it's been read and handed out and reread and handed out so many times that it's literally falling apart at the seams? Someone along the way kindly stuck some tape in there on the worst parts. I can't tell you how many times I've lingeringly run my finger over that lovely raised foil F on the cover. This is a book both well-read and well-loved. I hope a copy finds its way into your home and your heart someday. I hope it never leaves.
Retro Friday RoundupOne Librarian's Book Reviews reviews Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling