#WyrdAndWonder 2022 | Silence as strength in Daughter of the Forest

Wyrd & Wonder is a month-long celebration of the fantastic hosted by imyril, Lisa, Jorie, Annemieke and Ariana. Get involved here!

In 2019 I read Juliet Marillier’s historical fantasy, Daughter of the Forest, and it was an instant 5 star favourite for me that I still think about a lot. The first novel in the six-book Sevenwaters series, Daughter of the Forest takes place in medieval Ireland and follows Sorcha, a girl whose beloved six older brothers are turned into swans by their wicked stepmother. Sorcha is able to break the curse upon them if she sews each of her brothers a shirt from starwort, a plant that is incredibly painful to handle, and she must remain silent until the last shirt is complete and on her brother.

This is not an easy task. She can’t tell anyone why she’s doing what she’s doing nor defend herself when accusations like witchcraft are thrown her way and, in the most harrowing section of the novel, she has to stay silent during a truly horrendous sexual assault. The biggest of trigger warnings for this novel if you are someone who struggles to read about sexual assault, because nothing is glossed over. It’s horrid. What I appreciate about Daughter of the Forest, though, is that the rest of this novel is essentially about Sorcha dealing with the aftermath of that attack. The fact that she must do so in silence feels very true to the experiences of a lot of sexual assault survivors, who either aren’t believed or never tell anyone because they don’t think they will be believed if they do.

Sevenwaters is an interesting series in that each novel follows a different woman from the same family, and the first three novels come down a generation in each book, with Son of the Shadows following Sorcha’s daughter and Child of the Prophecy following Sorcha’s granddaughter. I was certain I’d love Son of the Shadows after I loved Daughter of the Forest so much, particularly when I saw so many reviewers on Goodreads name it their favourite book in the series, but reader, I loathed it. You can check out my review here if you’d like to know the many reasons why that book was Not It for me.

To each their own, though. I hated Son of the Shadows, but many other people adored it and I’m glad they found something in it that I couldn’t. There’s one thing I continue to stumble upon in reviews, however, that makes me rather prickly.

I’ve seen several reviewers talk about how they loved Son of the Shadows more because Liadan, Sorcha’s daughter (and The Worst™), had more agency than Sorcha because she didn’t spend the novel in silence.

I know I just said to each their own but no, that’s incorrect. Speech isn’t necessary for agency – it certainly helps, but agency isn’t impossible without it – and I think implying that it is completely ignores the fact that it’s Sorcha’s silence that’s proof of her strength.

Experiencing what she experiences without being able to speak is hard enough, but Sorcha isn’t a character predisposed to silence in the first place. With no mother and an emotionally absent father, it’s Sorcha’s six older brothers who raise her and let her get away with running rather wild in her youth despite the fact that she’s the daughter of a lord, and therefore someone her father is likely to want to marry off when she’s of marriageable age. She might spend a majority of the novel unable to speak, but she in no way enjoys it and, however much we might love our families, it shows a real strength of will that Sorcha does experience so much in complete silence.

“For indeed you have a choice. You can flee and hide, and wait to be found. You can live out your days in terror, without meaning. Or you can take the harder choice, and you can save them.”

As the lovely Natalie @ Too Short to Read pointed out when I was discussing this novel with her, Sorcha’s silence isn’t part of her stepmother’s curse. Nothing is stopping Sorcha from speaking apart from her own determination to save her brothers; silence is a choice she has to make every second of every day, even when it puts her in danger.

It’s also worth noting that saying Sorcha has no agency because she can’t speak is a strange criticism for a book told in first person. Sorcha is speaking to us throughout the entire novel, and her inability to speak to other characters doesn’t diminish the relationships she builds, from her friendships to her romance with Red. In fact some of the most important moments in the story rely on no dialogue at all.

Sorcha is able to assist Margery when she goes into labour and comes into difficulty on her childbed, and her entire relationship with Red builds while she is unable to speak to him. He finds other ways to communicate with her, and importantly doesn’t push or intimidate her when he realises what she’s been through, even making Sorcha blush when he shares an apple with her, not realising that for Sorcha such a thing has another meaning.

Apples are a token of love, a promise. It was clear that Red had never heard what it meant, for a man to share an apple with a young woman.

In Daughter of the Forest speech, or the lack of it, is the weapon used most by its villains. Lady Oonagh speaks of her love for her husband, yet uses her magic to curse his children; the men who assault Sorcha take her silence as consent when her body language proves she’s unwilling; Lord Richard, Red’s uncle, spreads lies about Sorcha in an attempt to have her burned at the stake, only to be thwarted. Sorcha may be unable to speak, but she is never dishonest.

Liadan, Sorcha and Red’s daughter, may be able to speak in Son of the Shadows, but she spouts a ton of hypocrisies, and the way she talks about, and treats, her sister makes her one of the least feminist heroines I have ever had the misfortune of reading. In her youth Sorcha also suffers with Not Like Other Girls syndrome, as so many heroines of historical fiction do, and yet she grows out of it and develops friendships with both Margery and Elaine that feel like a response to her dislike of Eilis, the woman her brother Liam is betrothed to, early in the novel.

Sorcha has agency in buckets. She never really stops speaking to us or the people around her, we just need to listen harder.

4 thoughts on “#WyrdAndWonder 2022 | Silence as strength in Daughter of the Forest

  1. Lexlingua says:

    I often recommend Daughter of the Forest to SFF readers — and mainly because of Sorcha. The kinds of trials that she is put through, it takes enormous courage and determination and fortitude to pull through it all. I know I had tears through some of those scenes. Bravery does not always have to roar, it comes in many forms. I love the post, and I love the book!


  2. Nicole @ BookWyrmKnits says:

    I haven’t read this book (and likely won’t, at least for a while, because of the assault scene being darker than my current reading needs) but I agree with you that Sorcha seems to have plenty of agency. Plus, I find it highly ableist to say that Sorcha has no agency because she doesn’t speak. True, her not speaking is a choice in this book, but there are plenty of people who don’t/can’t speak for other non-choice reasons, and they can have as much agency as anyone else.

    Thank you for this review! I do love the Wild Swans fairy tale, so seeing other versions of it makes me happy.


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