Such is the enduring power of fairy tales that they can be retold time and again and still retain their quality. An example is Grimm’s fairy tale “Six Swans”—the story of young girl who breaks a curse inflicted on her brothers—which has been redone in various languages and by writers such as Hans Christian Anderson and Andrew Lang. With Daughter of the Forest, Juliet Marillier takes readers on a thrilling magical odyssey with a fresh and captivating spin on the classic tale, set in ninth-century Ireland in the midst of land feuds between the Irish and the British.
Sorcha, a preteen girl in the novel’s beginning, lives with her six older brothers in the land of Sevenwaters, where they are at harmony with nature, practicing pagan rituals and maintaining a belief in the mythical Fair Folk. Their serene life is upset by the return of their father, Lord Colum, whose new wife, the seductive sorceress Lady Oonagh, turns his sons into swans. Sorcha flees into the wilderness and, guided by the Fair Folk, begins the arduous process of sewing six shirts out of nettle plants to turn her brothers back into humans, all while maintaining a vow of silence. During this time she is taken hostage by a British lord—Hugh of Harrowfield, also known as Red—and finds herself an unwanted foreigner in enemy territory; a situation complicated by her falling in love with Red.
Although Marillier herself has confirmed that the novel offers more by way of fantasy than historical accuracy, the cultural elements of ninth-century Britain and Ireland, such as the customs of hierarchy, patriarchy and laws of primogeniture, nonetheless have their place. This provides an authentic quality to the novel’s setting, as do the elements of Celtic paganism and the early risings of Christianity in Ireland.
Though Sorcha remains an absorbing narrator throughout the novel, at times the pacing drags and may test readers’ patience. Marillier proves to be fond of lush descriptions of the natural world, and indulges in details such as the names of flowers and trees and the shifting colors of the sky from dawn till dusk; sometimes excessively so. Though the novel ultimately delivers—maintaining strong dramatic tension and culminating in a satisfying climax—readers shouldn’t expect to get swept up in the action within the first couple chapters, which are more devoted to developing characters and fleshing out the setting.
Marillier has crafted a sound and solid story out of the basics provided by the original tale. The good news for fans is that this is just the first in the Sevenwaters series, which currently includes four other books; all of which have a tough act to follow.