I’ve never read any Celtic fantasy — never had the desire. But someone on one of the book groups where I hang out was lavish in praise of Juliet Marillier, so I went down to the library and picked out Daughter of the Forest, which is (…wait for it…) the first volume of a trilogy.
Marillier’s writing is good, and her handling of the cultural ambience of early Medieval Ireland is deft. Horses and swords and paths through the wood, tankards of mead, hunting dogs — she’s got it down pat. The Fair Folk of the wood are glimpsed now and again, and the danger of straying into a mushroom circle by moonlight is mentioned. If you go for this sort of thing, you won’t be disappointed.
I quickly noticed — and I would expect this to be true of Celtic fantasy in general — that there is nothing new in the fantasy premise itself. I’m sure this is intentional, a feature of the genre. Readers gravitate to these stories precisely because they’re set in a familiar land and laud a familiar set of virtues. Marillier serves up a concoction rich with reverence for nature, healing herbs, and of course a young heroine who is somehow a bit of a modern feminist in her spunky independence.
The story itself I found more difficult to swallow. The events in the first 80 pages (which is all the further I plan to go) are not plausible.
Our young heroine, Sorcha, is twelve years old, and is already a master herbalist and healer. That’s a bit of a stretch, but I’m okay with it.
Sorcha has six older brothers and a father who is locked in some sort of perpetual war (though we haven’t yet seen any battles) with the vile Britons, who have occupied some islands that are holy to the Celts, though the nature of the holiness remains a mystery. In the inciting incident that starts the story, a young man, evidently a Briton, is found lurking in the forest. On the assumption that he’s a spy, he is then tortured by Sorcha’s father and men-at-arms.
One of her brothers, the sensitive one, asks her to prepare a sleeping draught for the prisoner’s guards so that the prisoner can escape. This is, at the very least, a flogging offense, but her brother not only risks it, he draws his little sister into the scheme as well. It’s not at all clear why he is taking such an appalling risk, much less turning Sorcha into a traitor to all her father holds dear. Compassion for the prisoner, apparently.
The young Briton, gravely injured by the torture, is schlepped off to the cottage of a Christian hermit named Father Brien. Brien is not visibly Christian at all, no crucifixes or prayers or rosary beads or anything — and indeed he’s living peacefully among the pagans. For an escaped Briton to be found in his cottage would get the good Father flogged too, but he seems not to care about that. Shortly he sends for Sorcha to help him minister to the young Briton’s injuries. Here again, it would be a flogging offense for Sorcha if she’s discovered giving aid to the enemy in this way, but Father Brien enlists her aid quite casually.
And there she stays, in the lonely cottage with the young Briton and Father Brien, apparently for a couple of months. She prepares salves and bandages for his terrible wounds. The young man, whose name is Simon, isn’t just physically wounded; he wakes in the night screaming with nightmares, and must be comforted. At least once Sorcha (who is, remember, twelve years old) sleeps beside him holding his hand.
Oddly, Marillier never reveals the specific nature of Simon’s wounds. They do seem to take an awful long time to heal, that’s all we know. I found myself wondering if he had been castrated; that would explain a lot about his black moods. Oh, did I mention he’s also suicidal? Several times he tries to kill himself with a dagger, and has to be stopped. But why? He won’t explain.
The breaking point for me was that as Simon gets better, he and Sorcha start taking outdoor walks through those lovely Celtic woodlands. They exhibit no concern whatever about the possibility that some peasant will come wandering along, see them, and trot back to the castle to tell everybody that Sorcha is a traitor. This is flatly not believable. For one thing, Father Brien is also a healer. It’s beyond the bounds of possibility that over the course of a couple of months, none of the locals has ever approached his cottage seeking aid. They would have to; how else than by barter would he keep himself and two others supplied with food? Nor is it believable that even the most naive girl, let alone one who has been acting like a grown-up all the way through, would fail to think that they might be discovered while out walking.
At the point where I bailed out, Sorcha has left Simon alone with the hermit. She is forced to return home to meet — yes, what else? The Wicked Stepmother! Her father is getting remarried suddenly, and from the very first paragraph it’s clear that Lady Oonagh is the worst kind of bad news.
Maybe I’ll try some more Celtic fantasy sometime. Maybe there’s more to the genre than this.