JULIET MARILLIER Den of Wolves: Blackthorn & Grim #3. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
Juliet Marillier’s fine new fairy tale weaves stories within stories in complex and riveting ways.
This is the third volume to follow the adventures of the healer Blackthorn and her friend and companion Grim, set in the northern Irish part of Dalriada, a sixth and seventh-century Gaelic region of western Scotland and Ireland.
In the first volume, Dreamer’s Pool, Blackthorn has been imprisoned falsely by Mathuin, a tribal leader and warlord who has viciously murdered her husband and son. She is consumed by hatred and a simmering desire for justice and revenge. Grim tries to support and protect her in the prison. Strangely, an elf lord, Conmael, frees her on condition that she goes to Dalriada, helps anyone who asks for help and promises not to seek justice against Mathuin for seven years.
She complies, bitterly, and is able to help the ruling Prince Oran with a frightening mistaken identity situation that threatens his married happiness and has echoes of the fairy tale ‘The Goose Girl’. She settles at Winterfalls and practises her craft with Grim’s support – theirs is a platonic and fairly affectionate relationship. In the second volume, The Tower of Thorns, they are again called on to help when a howling creature haunts a formidable hedge-enclosed tower on the land near the northern border, causing suffering and total disruption. Real physical danger to Blackthorn is thwarted by the stalwart Grim.
Blackthorn never gives up her desire to have revenge on Mathuin and continues to evince bitterness and poisonous rage against him, which, while understandable, makes her somewhat unsympathetic. She often comes close to breaking her promise to Conmael.
Den of Wolves is the final book in the trilogy. It too, is based on an earlier fairy tale. Marillier’s research into early stories inspires her and, as she says, she admires the addition of new flesh to existing narratives and this is a wonderful exploration of a sad but richly imagined tale.
At Wolf Glen, Tola the landowner, and his sister Della are raising his 15-year -old daughter Cara. She is an unusual child, totally at home in the forest and befriended there by birds. She loves Wolf Glen and doesn’t want to leave it:
The forest knew everything. News passed on a breath of wind, in the call of an owl, in the small pattern of a squirrel’s paw prints. The trout in the stream learned it. The lark soaring high above saw it. The knowledge was in the hearts of the trees and the mysterious rustling of their leaves. It was a deep-down wisdom, as solemn as a druid’s prayer.
Tola desires to build a heartwood house, which will give protection to the family it belongs to, and with the sudden appearance of Bardan, a damaged wild man who knows the complex patterning required to build such a house, he is able to start.
He employs Grim to assist Bardan but he imposes strict conditions of secrecy and embargoes conversation with him. Grim, however, disregards this as he feels sympathetic and protective towards Bardan, whose story is truly horrific.
Meanwhile Cara is sent to the court of Prince Oban, ostensibly to acquire some polish, as she is dreamy, tongue tied, and does not conform to what Tola and Della regard as the rules of female decorum. She misses her forest.
Ultimately she comes into contact with Blackthorn and her complex and tragic past is slowly revealed. Blackthorn’s own story is ongoing as well; Mathuin has overstepped his power. We also discover how important Conmael, the elf lord, is to her, and how his conditional help has really been life-saving. And the relationship between Blackthorn and Grim slowly changes in predictable ways.
Historical fantasy is not everyone’s cup of tea but Marillier’s exploration of character is charming and perceptive and enriches the narrative. She is a very accomplished storyteller, able to weave stories within stories in ways that are complex and riveting.
In some ways Blackthorn is annoyingly blind to her own emotions and Grim is almost too good to be true, but this is part of the narrative path. Each chapter is given to a different player: Grim, Blackthorn, Cara and Bardan, and their thoughts reveal aspects of themselves and advance the story. Here is Grim:
At first I think she is only a dream. Been wanting to see her so bad, missing her so much, I’ve imagined this over and over. In the dream I look up and there she is, coming along from the big house. Red scarf on her head, red hair under it, basket over her arm. Not smiling or frowning, just looking at me like she knows me better than I do myself.
For me the real pleasure in this book is the underlying moral compass. It is humanist to the max. All the good outcomes are the result of decent and respectful behaviour by the main characters. As well, as they think and analyse their situations, the characters continually show the worth of gaining self- knowledge:
After the vile ordeal of Mathuin’s lockup, I’d acquired Grim as a travelling companion, not wanting him, not choosing him, but bound to let him tag along because of Conmael’s poxy rules. And now I was so used to having the big man around that when he was off doing his long days on the heartwood house I couldn’t help missing him. It felt as if part of me was absent.
This is a fine fairy story and I enjoy the name Grim, not only for its allusion to other historical fairy stories but because the main male character is anything but; he is the voice of respect and dignity.
Juliet Marillier Den of Wolves: Blackthorn & Grim #3 Macmillan 2016 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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