JULIET MARILLIER Dreamer’s Pool: Blackthorn and Grim 1. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
A bargain for a healer’s life is struck amid simmering anger and revenge in the first instalment of this new epic fantasy.
This fine fantasy novel opens with the main characters, Blackthorn and Grim, in a brutal prison, filthy, demoralised and damaged, both physically and emotionally. In many ways their sense of self has been lost and they each seem to go on existing for only one purpose. Blackthorn has been enduring the foul privations in the hope that she will get her chance to denounce the ruler Mathuin at the midsummer council. He has been the architect of her suffering as well as that of many women. She wants revenge. Grim, who seems very crushed yet strong physically – he exercises in the night – has appointed himself her protector in spite of her stinging rejection.
Backthorn learns that she is to be covertly killed before she can testify, but is given a lifeline by an aristocratic and elegant fey named Conmael. Her freedom will be arranged if she will travel north to Dalraida and for seven years offer her healing services to any who ask her help. She is so full of the desire for revenge that she almost refuses:
‘What?’ Morrigan’s curse, I’d be lucky if I managed seven days, let alone seven years! Walk away and leave Mathuin behind me, his crimes not only unpunished but not even reported? Agree to every single request for help? As for using my gifts for good, all the good had been beaten out of me long ago. My spirit was as stained and foul as my reeking, vermin-ridden body.
Blackthorn and Grim do travel north. There is limited help from the fey. Slowly they begin to deal well together, and Blackthorn practises her healing skills with Grim’s assistance. But they both carry much pain and anger; her anger is corrosive and bitter and his, based on feelings of rejection, erupts in violence.
In time, in Winterfalls where Oran, Prince of Dalraida rules, Blackthorn must attend to a cry for help that is so powerful that it will change all their lives. Oran has become affianced to Flidias, daughter of a chieftain in another kingdom. But something is so wrong about her that Oran must ask for help. He has established what he thought was a loving understanding with Flidias by letters, but when she arrives he finds that understanding completely missing. She is not the gentle thoughtful girl of his dreams but a harsh, inadequate and louche stranger.
Juliet Marillier has written many fine fantasy novels and this is the first of another series. She has skilfully used two settings: one is the actual countryside and life of the pre-Christian world of Druids, the other hinges on the emotional life of the characters. The descriptions of the journey are lovely. Marillier creates pleasure in the practical aspects of travel, the comfort and simplicity of a fire, the joy of a good meal:
It took longer than I liked to find a spot, near some rocks, with a busy stream gushing past not far away. There was a cave of sorts, a place where we’d be able to keep a fire burning. We had a routine now, as folk do who travel together.
Marillier is herself a member of a Druid order and her evocation of life in ancient Dalriada reflects her understanding of social life in the pre-Christian north of Ireland. Providing a believable historical framework is perhaps the most difficult of the writer’s tasks but Marillier uses the material aspects of living – the herbs, the simple clothing, the food, the utensils, the animals – to make the times and mores very real.
The emotional setting is manifested in the relationships between Blackthorn and Grim, Oran and Flidias. The anger and bitterness is so powerful in each of the first two that it provides an always-present, almost palpable patina and is a kind of ancillary setting for the novel.
The physical and the emotional aspects of the story are powerfully expressed and keep the narrative moving smoothly. This is a book that makes the reader determined to discover what is happening and it is told in turn by the three main characters, Blackthorn, Grim and Oran, giving us a layered and insightful perspective into their thought patterns and their views of each other.
There is a faint sound of the Grimm brothers’ tale of the Goose Girl echoing throughout, and we are left in no doubt that there will be more books to come. How Conmael knows Blackthorn from earlier times will need to be resolved, as will the events at the end of this book.
There is magic to be found in the Dreamer’s Pool of the title in more ways than one.
Juliet Marillier Dreamer’s Pool: Blackthorn and Grim 1 Macmillan 2014 PB 432pp $29.99
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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