Daughter of the Forest
by Juliet Marillier
A magnificent saga set in the Celtic twilight of 10th century Ireland, when myth was law and magic was a power of nature, brilliantly brought to life: the legendary story of an evil stepmother opposed by a seventh child.
The keep at Sevenwaters is a strange, remote place, guarded by silent men who slip through the woodlands clothed in grey, and keep their weapons sharp. Invaders roam outside: raiders from across the sea bent on destruction. But now there is also an invader inside the keep: the Lady Oonagh, a sorceress as fair as day, with a heart as black as night.
Oonagh captivates Lord Colum and his six sons, but she cannot enchant his daughter, Sorcha. Frustrated in her attempts to destroy the family, Oonagh binds the brothers with a spell only Sorcha can lift. If she fails, they will die.
When the raiders break through, Sorcha is taken captive. Soon she will find herself torn between her duty to break the curse and a growing, forbidden love for her captor.
TW: I will be discussing sexual assault in this review
There are some books that you know from the very first page you’re going to love, and that’s exactly what happened to me when I opened Daughter of the Forest.
Set in medieval Ireland, this sweep-you-away story is a retelling of The Six Swans fairy tale, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a story about loyalty – to family, to friends, to countries – and how loyalties can change and how, ultimately, even our enemies are people. But it’s also a story about trauma and hardship and how we overcome it and, in overcoming it, can open ourselves up to people again.
Sorcha is the youngest of the master of Sevenwaters’ seven children. Sevenwaters is an ancient keep that has been owned by Sorcha’s family for generations and her father, turned hard by the death of his beloved wife after Sorcha’s birth, has devoted his life to fighting back the enemies approaching from all sides in this medieval world. There are Danes and Picts who would seek to conquer Sevenwaters if they could, and even other Irish warlords, but their fiercest enemies are the Britons from across the water.
When Sorcha and her brother, Finbar, rescue a captured Briton from their own father’s dungeons Sorcha begins to re-evaluate everything she’s been taught about how ‘evil’ these people really are, but it isn’t until their father unexpectedly remarries a sorceress, the lady Oonagh, who places a curse on Sorcha’s brothers and turns them into swans that Sorcha’s difficult, often heart-breaking adventure truly begins.
This novel is slow and gorgeously written. I hesitate to say that if you prefer fast-paced fantasy you might not enjoy this book, because even though it’s a chunky story the plot keeps moving. There are plenty of moments of stillness and character growth, but at no point does this book feel stagnant. Every single scene in this book contributes to the story, and I’m not sure that’s something we can say for every large book out there.
What I loved about this novel is while it is a fantasy story – Sorcha has many interactions with the Fair Folk who aid her on her long journey, and magic is real to these people even before Oonagh arrives – it’s also very much a piece of historical fiction. Marillier adds so much detail about these characters’ daily lives, from what they have available to eat to what they wear, that meant I was quite happy to believe I’d been pulled back into the Middle Ages.
What Marillier most needs to be praised for, however, outside of her beautiful writing, is her character work.
Sorcha, for a start, is one of those characters I’m sure is going to stay with me throughout the rest of my reading life. We follow this girl from her childhood into her adulthood and get to know her so well that it was difficult to leave her when I closed this book. She starts out as many fantasy and historical fiction heroines do, with a love for the outdoors and not wanting to grow into a lady, but she’s not a girl-hating, one dimensional ‘tomboy’. She’s a girl who’s been raised not by her mother, who has passed away, and not by her father, who is too wrapped up in his own grief, but by six older brothers who have tried to raise her as best they can. It’s only natural then that, during her younger years, she doesn’t quite know how to relate to other girls because she’s never had any practice.
Her brothers I also loved, and I so admire Marillier for how she wrote them. Each one of them felt different from the others and I was never confused as to which was which, which takes some skill considering Sorcha was so often with all six of them at once. Their relationship is one of my favourite things about this novel, as they consider themselves seven parts of the same whole rather than seven individual people, and what they’re willing to do for each other (and what Sorcha does have to do for them) is the kind of love that could have come across as saccharine in the hand of another writer.
All of the characters in this novel are complex (apart from one or two villains who, I must admit, felt a little cartoonish when compared with the other characters) and the romance that develops is such a slowburn that it’s a relief when it comes to fruition. In fact I sped through this novel, despite its length, because Marillier did such a wonderful job of keeping me in a permanent state of anxiety worrying about what was going to happen to these characters. Once one chapter ended, I needed to start the next.
Unfortunately Sorcha suffers a sexual assault during this novel and, I won’t lie, I found it difficult to read. It takes me a while to build myself up to books that I know involve sexual assault because I find it so upsetting to read, and this scene in particular was harrowing. I feel like I need to mention it because it is quite graphic and I know there will be people out there who will find it so much more difficult to read than I did.
All that said, Marillier doesn’t write it just to shock people. Sorcha suffers this dreadful assault, but the rest of the novel is about how she works through that trauma as much as it is about her saving her brothers. Sorcha is unable to speak throughout the majority of this book, thanks to Oonagh’s curse, so she is forced to literally suffer in silence as many people who have suffered sexual assault continue to do today. She is able to communicate in other ways, however, and the new friends she makes and the man she eventually falls in love with are patient and kind. She is surrounded by people who want to make sure such a thing never happens to her again, and while that event can never be forgotten, their love and her brothers’ love and her own self-love help her to realise that that one event in her life doesn’t need to define the rest of it. It was evil and it shouldn’t have happened, but she isn’t ‘stained’ because of it.
Daughter of the Forest ultimately reads like its own original fairy tale, but in the best way. Yes, some of the villains are rather one dimensional, but this book as a whole is nothing short of a masterpiece. How could I give it anything less than 5 stars?