Daughter of the Forest is the debut of the New Zealand author Juliet Marillier and the first book in the widely acclaimed Sevenwaters Trilogy. It offers a deep-felt re-telling of “Six Swans”, an old folk tale that exists in many variations throughout Germany and Scandinavia. With this novel, which was awarded the 2001 American Library Association Alex Award, Marillier follows into the footsteps of such literary giants as the famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, who set his version of the tale of the swan brothers to paper in 1838.
Marillier relocates the Germanic tale to Ireland during the Dark Ages, a move that allows her to enrich the story with the rich Celtic lore of the Fair Folk, the Tuatha Dée Danann.
Daughter of the Forest is first and foremost the story of the young woman Sorcha and the trials she suffers in order to save her brothers from a terrible curse. Sorcha and her six older brothers grow up in the sylvan idyll of the secluded Sevenwaters, where their father Lord Colum rules. Idylls, however, seldom last and Sorcha’s harmonious childhood comes to an abrupt end when her father brings a new wife into the household.
The Lady Oonagh is young, beautiful – and subtly meancing. Her influence soon pervades the entire household as she quietly bends Lord Colum to her will and it quickly becomes clear that her intentions towards the family are chillingly malevolent. Oonagh is no ordinary woman but a sorceress and when she falls pregnant she makes her move against the family, binding Sorcha and her brothers with a terrible curse. The young men are turned into swans and Sorcha’s only hope of breaking the spell lies in painful labour and absolute silence. Fleeing into the sanctuary of the forest, Sorcha begins an ardours labour of fashioning six shirts out of a nettle-like plant by the name of starwort. This is a slow and painful task as the plant causes her hands to bleed and swell.
Sorcha’s difficulties are further compounded when she is captured by an old enemy of Sevenwaters and taken across the sea to the estate of Harrowfield in the north of England. Isolated among her enemies and unable to speak for herself, Sorcha’s position becomes increasingly untenable even though she is protected by Hugh, the Lord of Harrowfield. Her silence and her strange labour incite fear and anger among the members of the household, who fear that she exerts an unnatural influence over Lord Hugh. Accused of witchcraft Sorcha is faced with the agonizing choice of either saving her own life or those of her brothers…
Daughter of the Forest is written exclusively in the first person, which lends the narrative a high level of intimacy and reflexion. Marillier draws a wonderfully nuanced portrait of Sorcha and one cannot help but feel for her as well as admire her resourcefulness, her determination and her quite fortitude. Thus some passages are quite agonizing to read because of the reader’s emotional investment in the character of Sorcha. One of the drawbacks of the first person narrative is that the reader is only shown one perspective on the story’s events and characters. Luckily, Marillier adeptly manages to portray the different characters and their relationships in a manner that is subtle, insightful and nuanced.
Subtlety is generally the hallmark of Marillier’s novel. Not only does she portray the various relationships very skilfully, she is also quite adept at conveying atmosphere in an almost unobtrusive manner. Thus she expertly builds a slowly intensifying atmosphere of quiet menace from the moment the Lady Oonagh enters the household of Sevenwaters. The menace of Oonagh is always unspoken; rather it often manifests itself in seemingly innocuous exchanges such as this one:
The lady Oonagh had take up a bone hairbrush, and as I stood there she undid the crude tie that kept my curls off my face, and began to brush out the tangles. I clenched my fists and remained still. Something in the steady motion of the brush, and the way her eyes watched me in the polished bronze of the mirror, sent a chill deep through me. A tiny voice was alive inside me, a little warmth; I focused on the words. You will find a way, daughter of the forest. Your feet will walk a straight path.
“You have pretty hair,” she said. The brush moved rhythmically. “Unkempt, but pretty. You should let me cut it for you. Just a little tidy up – it will sit better under a veil that way. Oh! What has happened here?” Her predatory fingers fluffed the short ends over my brow, where Simon’s knife had shorn away a curl.
“I-” I was manufacturing an excuse in my head when my eyes met hers in the mirror. Her face was cold, so cold she seemed not quite human. The brush fell to the ground; her fingers still twined in my hair, and it was as if she could see into me, could read my thoughts, knew exactly what I had been doing. I shrank away from her.
It was only a moment. Then she smiled, and her eyes changed again. But I had seen, and she had seen. We recognized that we were enemies. Whatever she was, whatever she wanted, my heart quailed at it. And yet I believe she was taken aback by the strength she saw in me.
Another thing that Marillier handles with both elegance and subtlety is the supernatural element of the story. In this narrative, magic exists just beneath the surface of the material world and it mostly manifests itself in the form of visions and the touching of minds. At the same time it is made clear that the forest of Sevenwaters is a very special place, a place where the boundaries between the world of men and the world of Faerie are thin and porous. Thus Sorcha is from time to time aided by the Lady of the Forest, one of the Fair Folk, who sometimes meddles in human affairs for their own inscrutable reasons.
Though Daughter of the Forest best can be classified as a historical fantasy, Marillier imbues the narrative with a quality of timelessness that is so typical of the classical fairy tale. This is largely due to a sparing use of the type of historical markers that usually characterize historical fiction. This is a very intimate tale and thus the reader need know no more than that it takes place in Ireland and England in the very early Middle Ages, the period before the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England in the 10th century. It was a period of change and unrest as Christianity slowly superseded the druidic paganism and when the British Isles were threatened by the depredations of the Vikings from Denmark and Norway.
Daughter of the Forest is a very good piece of fantasy fiction – so good that it is sometimes hard to believe that it is Marillier’s first novel. Apart from the complex and deep-felt characterizations and the subtle building of atmosphere, Marillier makes an excellent use of foreshadowing and metaphor – all expressed in a wonderfully descriptive and lyrical prose that is a true pleasure to read. Marillier has crafted an elegant and exquisite novel whose subtleties and emotive power that brings to mind the Marion Zimmer Bradley’s classic re-telling of Arthurian myth, Jacqueline Carey’s wonderful Kushiel series and Guy Gavriel Kay’s elegant and bittersweet historical fantasies. Daughter of the Forest is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I recommend it highly.