This week on Down the Stacks, we’re slipping into the realm of fairy tales while keeping one foot solidly in reality. In ancient Ireland, near but not quite part of the clash between Christianity and Druidism, is The Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier.
Somewhere deep in the forests of Ireland (or Erin as they call it in this story) lies the land of Severwanters, so named for the seven rivers that feed the lake at its heart. Sevenwaters is ruled by Lord Colum, a normally fair and wise man haunted by the death of his beloved wife and often lured away to take part in the long-standing feud against the Britons who occupy three islands the Irish consider sacred ground. Our protagonist in Daughter of the Forest is Sorcha, the seventh child and only daughter of Lord Colum who was essentially raised by her adoring brothers because their father is never around long. Each of Colum’s children has a talent, and Sorcha’s is in medicine. She’s also well steeped in the stories of her people’s heroes and of the Fair Folk who play long games with mortals.
The story begins when Lord Colum’s men capture a young Briton lad and try to torture information out of him. One of Sorcha’s brothers, Finbar, who is driven by an overwhelming sense of right and wrong, manages to sneak the Briton out of Sevenwaters to the hermitage of Father Brien, a Christian priest who taught Sorcha and her siblings to read and write and to speak English and has a powerful respect for the magic and Druidic traditions of Erin. Sorcha is taken along to tend to the young Briton’s wounds, and for a while she does both that and try to heal the lad’s broken spirit.
One day, however, Sorcha is forced to return home because her father has found himself a new wife: the lady Oonagh. This cold-eyed lady turns out to be a sorceress who has cast her charms over Lord Colum, and when Sorcha and her brothers try to act against her she curses the boys into the form of swans. Sorcha escapes with her life and, appealing to the Fair Folk for help, is tasked with remaining completely silent until she completes the task of weaving six shirts from starwort, a flower whose stems are covered in tiny, painful spines. Then, if things weren’t complicated enough, Sorcha eventually ends up more or less captured by the brother of the Briton she’d nursed and taken to England. There, she must try to to complete her task while dealing with prejudice, accusations of witchcraft, and local politics.
Daughter of the Forest is an expertly crafted story that takes a traditional folktale and builds around it a somewhat more realistic story. Sorcha narrates the story from a point in the nebulous future, and she often slips in commentary about how stories like hers are often told and how her experience differs, usually for the worse. Near the end, when things seem like they’re wrapping up, Sorcha notes that as her story starts making the rounds of her home town it quickly morphs in the telling to omit various details - like most of her experiences in Britain - and fit the traditional framework better. It’s both a great story in the style of ancient epics and a mild deconstruction of them.
Sorcha, and her whole family, is characterized by a great strength of spirit that gives Sorcha the willpower to endure her trials without uttering a sound, but also can make them all quite stubborn about things and quick to anger over offences. While Sorcha learns to keep her anger in check for her own sake, her brothers tend to be so belligerent on the rare occasions they’re allowed to resume human form that they’d likely declare war on the whole world if necessary to protect their sister. It’s a justifiable attitude in some cases, but in others you just want to stuff a sock in their mouths so someone else can get a word in edgewise.
The cast of the British section of the story is enjoyable. They run the whole spectrum from friendly and protective, like Red and Margery, to distrustful but bound by duty, like Lady Anne, to the pure slimeball that is Lord Richard of Northwoods. They’re the cast of a story of love and intrigue that could stand on its own but is also well blended into the larger narrative of Sorcha.
Daughter of the Forest has some sequels, but the first book stands perfectly well by itself, so you could stop at the end and be satisfied or go out and find the next book to read the story of the next generation of Sevenwaters.