I was introduced to Juliete Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest by the fabulous Felicia Day and her Vaginal Fantasy Bookclub. But I don’t know how I missed it on my own, since it’s right up my alley. Set in a mythological Ireland when Druids still held the upper hand against expanding Christendom and Fair Folk still meddled in the lives of mortals, Daughter of the Forest is a retelling of the “Six Swans” fairy tale.
The Brothers Grimm’s sparse, brutal “Six Swans” was rarely included in fairy tale collections. The version I grew up with belonged to Hans Christian Andersen. It was one of my favorites. In both, a stepmother turns her stepsons into swans. They can only be saved by their sister, who must weave each of them a shirt from the fibers of a specific plant that the sister must harvest herself. The sister must maintain silence for the duration of her task, and must rescue her brothers all at once, not as each shirt is completed. In both versions the girl is married to a foreign king who protects her at first; but, unable to defend herself against accusations of sorcery and murder, she is eventually sentenced to burn. On the way to the pyre she is visited by the swans, throws the shirts over their necks, and her brothers are saved, although one retains a swan wing where the final shirt sleeve was unfinished.
Marillier’s version draws from both of these sources and Irish mythology. She builds a world with similar structure and atmosphere to what I remember of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon.
She spends a lot of time on building that world. The conventions of romance do not become apparent until well into the book; the hero does not appear until almost halfway through. Daughter of the Forest is, after all, based on a fairy tale, and it satisfies the requirements of fantasy first and foremost. Marillier spends most of the first half creating distinct characters for each of the six brothers the heroine Sorcha must save.
She also introduces a secondary story in the character of Simon, a young English soldier who is captured and tortured, and whom Sorcha attempts to save before the fairy tale action begins. Simon’s ordeal foreshadows Sorcha’s, perhaps even dictating the terms of Sorcha’s magical task. Although it is only rarely and obliquely referred to in the book, the symmetry between their suffering seems to be related to the mysterious “long game” played by the faeries.
Hans Christian Andersen emphasized the love story between the girl and the king, providing a solid foundation for Marillier’s beta-style hero. In litera-chah, heroes are supposed to have depth of character, complex psychology, and tragic flaws. In romance, the only important question is, “Would I hit that?” Marillier’s English lord, Red, succeeds on both counts.
The book works both as a fantasy and a romance, while still remaining faithful to all of the significant elements of the original fairy tale. While the quality of the prose may not rise quite to the level of what is nowadays referred to as literary fiction, it easily transcends lax genre standards.
I have already confessed to a weakness for this sort of fantasy, so when I say that the atmosphere of fey magic and ancient ritual lingered for several days after I finished the book, it may say more about me than the writing. Perhaps more telling – I was almost as surprised as the protagonist when the romance finally emerged. It was even more satisfying that dozens of pages remain once the brothers are restored and (for me at least) it was not obvious what Marillier was going to do with them.
Maybe some of the rough edges and loose ends in the denouement have more to do with leaving a bread crumb trail to the sequels than with sophisticated storytelling, but it’s a trail I plan to follow.