Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have always loved the fairy tale about the sister with numerous brothers who had a wicked stepmother who enchanted her brothers to turn them into birds. The number of brothers and the type of birds can vary. I have seen it with ravens and with swans. In Daughter of the Forest, Ms. Marillier used the version in which the heroine has six brothers and they are all turned into swans. I must say I truly enjoyed (and devoured) this heartbreaking, emotionally wrenching novel based on that fairy tale. I like the way this version is set in Dark Ages Ireland, in which the Irish fight against the British to maintain their sacred islands and to keep their own faith. In this case, the heroine is the seventh child born to parents who are mystically blessed. Her mother died in childbirth and bequeathed a spiritual legacy and a deep bond to her seven children.
The theme of family is a huge foundation of this story. These siblings would do anything for each other, and their bonds of loyalty are severely tested. This is one of those books where you scream to the heavens in agony, asking "WHY?" in a loud voice. So many trials and hardships. I was prepared from the fairy tale, but the additional detail in this story and the foreknowledge of some major aspects make it that much more wrenching to read. And what happens to Sorcha while she is in the forest, that just about broke me.
A person would have to be made of stone to not be moved by the trials that Sorcha endures. Not just that, but the cruelty that is so much a part of life for people in this story. Ms. Marillier tackles the subject of war between cultures. In this book, you start out seeing the Irish side, but Sorcha's brother Fimbar has always looked at the issue of warring cultures as a construct that falsely divides people who are at their heart just humans. He wants to see both sides, and he wants to find a way for both the Irish and the British to see each other as allies instead of enemies. His warlike father Lord Colum doesn't understand that at all. His heart died with his wife, and his focus has become fixed on conquest and protection of their lands from the British, at any cost. As this story progresses, and I met Simon, a Briton who was captured and cruelly tortured by Lord Colum's forces (and liberated and healed by Sorcha and a kindly Christian priest that dwells on their lands); and later meeting Lord Hugh, who saves Sorcha's life and protects on her dangerous mission to save her bothers,and his people--I could see that there was good and bad on both sides. For that's just the nature of humanity. Alas, this reader has a very tender heart, and I was affected deeply by the dark times that unfold in this story. I was also struck by the unfairness of it all. As much as that bothered me, I couldn't imagine being the characters in this book. Sorcha seems to be put in a position that no thirteen-year-old (at the time her mission starts) should have to face. The Fair Folk have chosen her for this responsibility, and neither her nor I really truly understood what their game was. What was the author trying to say here? That life is pain, and it doesn't seem to make sense. That we can make up explanations for it, but in the end, we just have to buck up and deal. I guess that is true to some extent. There are so many twists and turns, and life is full of these unfair situations. Like Sorcha, I rely on my faith to make sense of it, and to keep me strong. Even though my faith is different from hers, I could identify with her in that sense, and in the love she feels for her family.
There are many memorable characters in this story. Of course, Sorcha. Sweet, loving, enduring, fiercely determined Sorcha. She is the willow that will bend but won't break. Her brothers (all distinct and lovable), Simon (who formed a bond with Sorcha that affected them both deeply), and Lord Hugh (who is called Red), just to start with. Characters that I loved and cried for in my heart at how they suffered. I wondered how the author could be strong enough to show her characters hurting, dying, and being subject to the cruel actions of bad people. I know it wasn't at all easy to read. The villains are so evil, you just want to tear them limb from limb. Just evil because they can be. Lord Richard seemed even worse than Lady Oonagh, despite her dark witchcraft. He was the type who was pure human, but with the mentality of a devil. Both with secret ambitions brewing in hearts so black they don't even seem human. As I read, I shook my fist at them both, and willed Sorcha and her brothers to be strong. Like Sorcha, I could not help but love Red. What a wonderful man!
This was an absorbing story. It's truly angsty and sorrow-filled. The kind of book that leaves a lingering essence of melancholy in me after I finish it, even though the ending is relatively upbeat, for the most part. But the emotional scars of what occurs in this book didn't fade even when the book was over. They stayed with me. That's the power of a good book. You don't want to finish a book and think, "What did I just read, because I don't feel a thing?" Nope, that's not this book.
For those fairy tale lovers, this is a must read. It captures this beautiful story of a sweet but enduringly strong heroine whose love for her brothers takes her to very dark extremes, but that love is pure enough to help her save them and herself. People say that fairy tales are chauvinistic and show women as weak, under others' control, always needing a prince to save them. I don't think they have read this one, or they wouldn't dare say that. And what is strength anyway? Did Samson's strength protect him from Delilah's wiles? Did Hercules fare any better in his tragic life for all his strength? No, to me, the greatest strength is that of a loving, enduring heart. And no one has more strength than Sorcha in that regard.
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