This review first published on Fantasy Faction.
I’ve long been a fan of New Zealand-born author Juliet Marillier. I read the first book in her Sevenwaters series, Daughter of the Forest, many years ago and have followed each new release ever since. For those who aren’t familiar with her work, Marillier writes what’s usually classed as historical fantasy. She situates her stories predominantly in pre-Christian Ireland where the Pagan tradition still holds sway, a land where druids walk half-wild on the margins of society and the fey folk play cat-like with mortal lives.
Dreamer’s Pool begins a brand new series called Blackthorn & Grim, starring the titular characters and set again in Ireland in roughly the same time period (we’re never actually given a date). My Ace Roc hardback features some stunning artwork, but don’t be fooled into thinking the ethereal woman on the cover is Blackthorn. Unlike Marillier’s previous heroines, we meet Blackthorn at her lowest point: filthy, lice-ridden, abused, awaiting trial in prison.
For anyone familiar with Marillier’s style, this is a significant departure. Previous heroines were younger, fresher, virgin and still under the auspices of their parents. As Dreamer’s Pool unfolds, we learn that Blackthorn once had a husband, child and a calling, but lost everything to a corrupt chieftain named Mathuin. To say she wants revenge would be an understatement. It is all she lives for, all she craves and it warps her reason to the point of irrationality.
The story begins when she’s offered a reprieve from the noose by a fey man, who demands she reclaim her healer’s skills and pledge to serve the people of a faraway region for seven years. Only when those years have passed will she be allowed to pursue her revenge. Blackthorn reluctantly accepts and so begins the first of her adventures, accompanied by a fellow inmate named Grim. The duo and their complex, platonic relationship pleasingly evoke a modern detective narrative without undermining the historical setting.
In another departure from her norm, Marillier employs three distinct points of view: Blackthorn, Grim and Prince Oran, who is both instigator and beneficiary of the duo’s investigative services. Oran has a problem: his promised bride, with whom he’s been exchanging letters, does not turn out to be anything like the woman he imagined. Although she looks like her picture, the resemblance ends there. Her personality is different, she doesn’t seem to be able to read and her devoted little dog, of whom she’d written so fondly, suddenly, inexplicably, hates her.
Oran’s trusted manservant believes his prince’s response is born of naivety. But Blackthorn comes to see – reluctant as she is to involve herself with anyone else’s affairs – that there is more to this than meets the eye.
Between them, these three characters handle the plot with the deftness of a master storyteller. Marillier is top of her game and there isn’t one wasted word or scene. Although some of these scenes depict little more than a council reaching a verdict on who will pay recompense for dead sheep, or the prince listening to the domestic talk of his subjects, the uncluttered prose ensures that the pace never falters. Indeed it’s quiet scenes such as these that bolster the story’s authenticity. From food to labour to class structure and correct social address, the setting is beautifully rendered. There’s a sense of local politics and underlying historical movement to all Marillier’s novels and the events in Dreamer’s Pool are set against a greater backdrop of conflict.
This is a good place to start if you’re new to Marillier. Blackthorn is refreshingly sharp-tongued and intolerant. She’s suffered injustices at the hands of men, which makes her distrustful of every one she meets. It takes her a long time to accept that Oran is the antithesis of Mathuin and her gradual re-evaluation of him embodies a fascinating character development.
Grim remains the most enigmatic of the three protagonists. While we eventually learn the secrets of Blackthorn’s past, Grim’s is not revealed, and it’s hinted more than once that his past is very dark indeed. The puzzle of Grim is one of the many reasons I’ll be picking up the next book in the series. Despite both Blackthorn and Grim ending up miles from where they began, both literally and figuratively, you get the impression that they have a long way still to go. The world that tore their lives apart is the same one that’s helping them to rebuild and both characters must learn again to live in it. Human hypocrisy and ignorance exist alongside human integrity and trust, a complex combination that Blackthorn and Grim are taxed with handling.
Dreamer’s Pool is a deft integration of magic, the hardships of rural life and courtly intrigue. It’s for anyone who desires a potent, earthy sense of place and a multi-layered narrative told through characters with distinct and fascinating personalities. There is much of the fairy tale about it and the resolution of the mystery is suitably magical, as well as dark. Marillier’s world is not a pretty one. It’s hard, cold and unjust. But it’s also real and immediate and will keep you reading long past your bedtime.